Warm congratulations to all the books on this brilliant poetry longlist – and warm commiserations to the equally brilliant poetry books that didn’t make it. Poetry awards are a time for joy and whoops for some, and slump and self doubt for others. I never forget this. I always say that good books attract readers and good books endure, regardless of awards.
But today I celebrate the longlisted books I have read so far (deep apologies I haven’t yet reviewed Anahera Gildea’s and Michael Steven’s fabulous collections on Poetry Shelf). I have included links to my reviews/conversations.
Reading back through my reviews, I was reminded of the incredible reach and range of our poets. So many books to hold to our hearts.
Grateful thanks to the publishers, booksellers, book reviewers and readers who continue to support our vibrant and essential poetry communities in Aotearoa.
Always Italicise: how to write while colonised, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Auckland University Press, 2022
Alice Te Punga Somerville’s new collection offers four vital sections: reo / invisible ink / mahi / aroha. Sections in their own right but the discrete boundaries blur as movement and connections abound. The categories strike a chord, deep seated, poignant, as though this exquisitely designed book becomes a register of life – how we speak, how we are unseen and unspoken, how we work, and how we love. Importantly, how we become.
The overturned italics convention, carried across the length of a book, is an insistence. It is personal, it is political and it is ancestral. We are what and how and why and where and who we speak. The historical and contemporary silencing, the historical and contemporary othering of language is inexcusable.
Alice’s poems are writing on the breath, breathpoetry, utterly fluid; it is writing on the breath of memory, story, change, ideas, feeling. Her poems carry the rhythm of life – of reo, invisible ink, mahi, aroha. There is the rhythm of prayer and the rhythm of waiata. The poetic rhythms and crafted fluencies carry the reader across eclectic subject matter.
Books reach us at different times and in different ways. As readers we establish myriad travel routes through a book, we bring our own experience close or hold at a vulnerable distance. Books are my life rafts at the moment. With the road ahead still bumpy, still uncertain, I hold language and love close, I work and take little steps each day. I see Alice’s glorious, ground-establishing poetry collection as her mahi, her aroha. It is a book spiked with anger and it is a book stitched with love. It has made me smile and it has gripped my heart. It is the most affecting book I have read this year.
Echidna, essa may ranapiri, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022
Spending extended time with essa may ranapiri’s new collection Echidna is a catalyst for contemplation, deep-seated musing, sinking into the knowable, wallowing in the unknowable, brushing against the light, scratching at the dark. All this and more. essa is writing in the present tense, that intimate prolonged precious moment when their words meet screen or page but, as their dedication indicates, are writing – for to from – their ancestors (past) and descendants (future). And past present future become weave. And writing becomes weave. And weave becomes writing.
essa offers sensual hooks so poems become tactile, aromatic, igniting taste buds. There is the physical and there is the intangible. The form of the poems shift like the shifting voice of the storyteller, the point of view swivelling. Sometimes a poem might appear like two salt pillars, sometimes ravined with space and ache, sometimes wider gaps punctuate the line, allowing room for float and drift.
And the sound. There is the music of the storytelling voice, a voice attuned to holding a listener entranced, to composing aural connections, undulating chords. Yes, it is music for the entranced listener.
Books find you. You find books. Poetry, like storytelling, has an incredible ability to invigorate every body pore, in ways that both heal and challenge. We need poetry in these turbulent times. We need this book. This remarkable groundbreaking Echidna.
Meat Lovers, Rebecca Hawkes, Auckland University Press, 2022
Rebecca Hawkes’s debut full-length collection is a triumphant display of the power of words. The book is in two halves, Meat and Lovers; two sides to a beating heart, both dependent upon the other.
I am a vegetarian who cooks meat for my family and I wondered whether I would hold the ‘meatiness’ of Rebecca’s collection at arm’s length. The first poem, The Flexitarian, begins in a supermarket meat aisle and ends with meat sizzling in a pan. The sensual dexterity, the aural finesse, are so compelling I am transfixed. Assonance meets alliteration meets addictive rhythm. It’s like falling upon a song you love that you keep on replay. This poet can write.
She moves from the density of the opening poem to the lush detail of stealing sweets in Countdown (Help yourself) to the sweet economy of Sighting. The movement between spare and opulent is a trait of the collection as a whole. At times, the poems draw upon distant memories, using distinctive and shifting chords to translate the past.
I am hard pressed to think of a poetry collection that has affected me as much as this one has. I welcome the ‘meat’ and the ‘lovers.’ The poetic craft captivates, yet it is the glint and gleam of life, as young girl and as young woman, at times macabre, at times lust, at times vulnerable, always astonishing, that transports and impales. Meat lovers is a significant arrival in our poetry landscapes. Glorious.
People Person, Joanna Cho, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022
Joanna Cho’s debut poetry collection, People Person, is poetry pleasure. I experience a sequence of poetic delights, poems that offer multiple rewards, poems to read again and again. The presence of Joanna’s mother’s ephemeral paintings is an exquisite addition: fleeting, hinting, translucent palette, subject rich. I adore them.
More than anything I am pulled into the pleats and folds of Joanna’s writing because it is personal. It is humorous and witty and revealing. It is confessional and withholding, gifting and gifted. Each time you read from cover to cover, you will discover new reading tracks, fresh possibilities for what we want and need from poetry. Each poem a provisional portrait, a self excursion, a self reckoning.
Joanna’s poetry relishes narrative, whether fractured, curtailed, elongated. The power of story, invented or recalled, attracts me as reader. Think fable or anecdote or ranging subject matter. I savour this collection on so many levels, on its ability to startle and sidetrack, on its use of loops, repetition, echoes.
People Person is a triumph – I have quoted more excepts than I would normally do (in my review) because it is the poetry that matters here, poetry that delivers myriad reading tracks that are so utterly satisfying. Glorious.
Super Model Minority, Chris Tse, Auckland University Press, 2022
Paula: Inspired and comforted seem crucial for both readers and writers. Your new collection is body shattering and heart repairing. And yes, both inspiring and of comfort. The book includes the best endorsements ever (Nina Mingya Powles, Helen Rickerby, Rose Lu). They catch how the reading experience affected me perfectly. Would you couch the writing experience in similar terms?
Chris: Writing this book caught me off-guard, in a number of ways. First, I didn’t think I’d have a manuscript ready so soon after HE’S SO MASC – I was happy to take my time with the next book. Then a few things happened that set off something in me – an urgency to write and respond: the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks, and the rise of anti-Asian sentiment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. These events all triggered powerful emotions, but the overriding frustration I felt was that things seem to stay the same no matter how much we push for societal change and equality. I was overcome by anger, sadness, and helplessness, so I decided to write myself out of that state and turn it into energy. The poems kept coming and I found myself confronting a lot that I’ve left unspoken for so long – some of it out of guilt, some of it out of fear. Overall, the writing process taught me a lot about myself because of these responses and the realisation that it’s important to hold on to hope throughout the dark times – I’m not as nihilistic as I thought I once was, even if that’s how it may come across in the book!
Paula: I wrote down ‘a bath bomb effect’ in my notebook as I was reading. The whole book really. A slow release of effervescence. The kind of poetry that you think and feel. That inspires and comforts! This comes through when you perform or record your poetry. The poems you recorded from the book for Poetry Shelf. Your performances with the Show Ponies. Your readings have got a whole lot of love on the blog. Mesmerising! Does it affect the writing? The future performances in the air?
Chris: Sometimes I’ll have a feeling as I’m writing as to whether or not a poem will be one suited for performances. ‘The Magician’, ‘What’s fun until it gets weird?’ and ‘Poetry to make boys cry’ were written to be performed at particular events so I was conscious about how they flow and build during a performance. Having that embedded into the poem really helps me when it comes to performing it, and hopefully that effect comes across on the page when others are reading it. Reading my work out loud, either at home or to a crowd, has become a much more integral part of my writing and revision process in recent years, even if it isn’t necessarily a poem that I think will make it into high rotation as a ‘live’ poem. This wasn’t really a major consideration when I was writing Snakes because the thought of sharing my work in that way wasn’t really front of mind, although I do love the opportunities that book presents when I’m asked to do a long set and have the chance to read a substantial selection from it.
Paula: I agree that what you write must be a big deal for the queer and POC communities. I am heartened by an increased visibility of Asian writers not just as poets but as editors. But at times I am also disheartened. How do you feel?
Chris: It really is heartening to see so many POC and queer writers getting published and stepping into editing and leadership roles, but there’s still a long way to go to undo decades of erasure and disengagement with the industry, and to not feel like we exist only to be a tick in the diversity box. When it feels like we’re not getting anywhere, I hold on to as many moments of joy as I can and celebrate our achievements. I’ll never forget being on the bus home after the last event at Verb 2019 and being overwhelmed with emotion after spending the weekend attending events featuring so many Asian authors. It felt like such a turning point to have so many writers I could consider contemporaries, and to be graced by the presence of US poet Chen Chen, who has been a major inspiration. The other time I’ve had the same feeling was while rehearsing for a staged reading of Nathan Joe’s play Scenes from a Yellow Peril – the entire cast and crew were Asian. It’s the dual power of being seen and finding your people! When I started writing, the concept of ‘a Chinese New Zealand writer’ felt so murky and out of reach, and I also wasn’t even sure if it was a role I particularly wanted to inhabit. The word ‘whakama’ comes to mind when I think about who I was at that time, and it’s taken me literally decades to push back against that shame and unpack the effect of racism on my life to understand why I need to be loud and proud about who I am.
Surrender: Poems, michaela keeble, Karaheke | Bush Lawyer, 2022
michaela’s book is cradled in a nest of other books. You can follow the thread to other writers, to books she has read, to your own reading connections. The short lines, self exposure, the lower case ‘i’, the vital political currents lead me to Janet Charman. I read the word ‘intertidal’, and I am back in the pages of Kiri Piahana-Wong. The white space around each poem establishes essential breathing room, new starts. It is writing out of white and not forgetting, searching for the ‘white tongue’, the ‘shame tongue’, seeking and discovering syllables, medicine, stories, communication lines, dialogue, metaphors. What does the ‘half tide’ stand for? Or the conference poem or the guilt poem? Or the throat or the river? The country? Or the person writing and reading next to you? What does the metaphor stand for, instead of, against? The poems face the earth, the sick earth, the beloved earth, the damaged state of affairs where hierarchies continue to gulf and elevate the privileged. They rattle complacency, my steady feet on the ground. Where I am? Who am I am? How I am?
This need for community, this need to write and to speak, to be private and to share. That is exactly what Surrender does, in writing so sweetly crafted the hairs lift on my skin. The lines economical, yet satisfyingly rich. Pip Adams wrote on the cover: ‘One of the most welcome and important collections I’ve read.’ I agree. This book is both humble and extraordinary, and I love it to the moon and back.
The Pistils Janet Charman, Otago University Press, 2022
Janet’s new collection The Pistils opens with a terrific sequence, ‘High days and holy days’. Twelve poems that mark holidays or significant occasions (Waitangi Day, Parihaka Day Guy Fawkes Night, Wahine Day, Matariki, Picnic Days). Each poem contributes to a life – within a sequence of panels. Bare bones. Ample white space. A miniature narrative of excavation. Remember when. Remember how. Remember why. The sequence opens scenes, moments, places – and we enter the collection grounded.
Move into the heart of the book, and the mind leaps and bounds along the rhythm of the line. Exquisitely crafted. Scored. Composed. In ‘Mrs Valentine’s instructions’, the rhythm of revelation shapes memory. On the next page, in ‘hometime’, attention to the sound of the line is equally arresting. Memory is translated into music and image. It is a portrait of the child but it is also a portrait of the mother. In parings and traces. Surprising arrivals. It is religion and Freud, a mother lost in a novel, it is fingers worn to the bone, the news on the radio, family dinners, walking home. Life and death. It is home.
I speak of rhythm in such glowing terms but it is of course part of a sonic festival. Janet’s poetry strikes the ear (as Rebecca Hawke’s debut collection does). This leaning in to listen is rewarding: the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance, short lines, slightly longer lines, punctuating breath, free flowing currents. Again Janet’s agile music enhances my engagement with her roving subject matter. With the sharp edges and the necessary subterranean questions. How to live? How to live and love on planet Earth? How to speak against subjugation based on gender or skin colour? How to see your parents? How to go on when your beloved is no longer there? How to continue probing and resisting? How to be yourself? Ah. Such layerings.
Reading Pistil is exhilarating. I am loving this book because it is vulnerable and open, it is edgy and crafted, and because it shines a light on how it is for women. We still need that persistent light. We still need poetry that misbehaves as much as it makes music on the line. The poems call out and call for, stand out and stand for. It is a stunning collection.
We’re All Made of Lightning, Khadro Mohamed, We Are Babies, 2022
Khadro’s debut collection is prismatic, probing, resonant with heart pulse. The book is still sitting beside me on the bed sparking multiple lights into the room. The lights of elsewhere which are infused with the lights of here, the lights of here which are boosted by the lights of elsewhere. Each poem is tethered in some glorious and moving way to whakapapa, to homelands, to self. To the awkwardness of speaking another tongue. To the life that is etched, tattooed, imprinted upon skin. Feelings. Longings. Epiphanies.
The book is sitting bedside, and I am thinking home is a state of mind we carry in our hearts as well as on our skin, and that it is relationships, and it is the physicality of place that feeds all senses and that can be so badly missed.
Khadro is asking for story and song. How to speak? And she is speaking within the honeyed fluency of her lines, with recurring motifs: herbs and tea, storm, typhoon and hurricane, ghosts and rain, ash and pain, chocolate and dates, drownings and rescue.
She is showing the searing wound, the challenges of being a young Muslim woman in a different home. She is responding to the barely pronounceable impact of March 15th. And there it is. The intolerable virus: a hatred that is fuelled by the colour of skin, a language spoken, one’s lineage, one’s dress or food or religion. Here in Aotearoa and across the world.
The book is beside me on the bed, and I am willing poetry to make a difference. And for me it does. To pick up this astonishing book of vulnerability and strength, of journey and vision, is to take up Khadro’s invitation and step into her home, into her poems, to share her tea and listen to her songs, her stories, her hope and her comfort. In her endnote, which she admits she had trouble writing, she thanks the reader. I am thanking Khadro and We Are Baby Press for a book ‘worth holding onto’, in multiple milky star ways.