Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Ockham NZ Book Award Poetry shortlist

Full details and other categories here

Congratulations to all the deserved finalists, I have loved all these books. 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. As a writer, it is the writing that matters – I loved the poets that missed out on a shortlist spot – and please do not let this damage your faith in your own writing.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Cadence Chung’s ‘would not dare’

would not dare

it’s that one tiny shift, one flick
of a blind and suddenly your room
is a camera obscura and every
image flickering on the walls is
enough to yearn for, tongue hot
and waiting. it might be enough
for her, to listen to her heart
like a century-old recording — with
poise, with study, with interest —
but it is not enough for me, not
when every note seems to form
an anagram for her name. when
did that happen, you ask, about
freckles going from dark patches of
skin to night-sky smatterings of
glitter. when did i get so stupid?
one day you are in bed with your
downy white cat and the next
you are in your grandma’s kitchen,
tears in your eyes as you look
at her fine china teapot you
smashed, the blue willow-pattern
fragmented incomprehensible.
without saying a word, your
grandfather takes the duster,
sweeps up all the pieces and
makes you cheap tea in separate
cups. that afternoon you try and
fail to play Debussy on his old
piano, and he pretends not
to listen. the pottery fragments
watch on, those ancient lovers
broken in two, finally lying still
in their paper-towel graves.

Cadence Chung

Cadence Chung is a poet, student, and musician from Te Whanganui-a-Tara, currently studying at the New Zealand School of Music. She draws inspiration from Tumblr posts, antique stores, and dead poets. Her debut poetry book ‘anomalia’ was published by Tender Press Press in April 2022.

Poetry Shelf review: Elizabeth Smither’s My American Chair

My American Chair, Elizabeth Smither, Auckland University Press, 2022

Before I reached the end – slices of life cut through
by each now knife-edged page – a calm
(it might have been the page of The Scream)

dissolved the bed and the chicken, your fine
conversation which calmed everything, and the book
on my lap was reverently shut again

while outside, when darkness fell and stars
like the numbered pages came to glow
the peace of a wild book descends.

from ‘A wild book’

Elizabeth Smither’s poetry has been part of my life for a long time. I have carried its richness and its economy, its insight and its litheness, with me as both reader and writer. When you read a poem from Elizabeth’s new collection, you cannot immediately move onto the next, you need to stall and savour, and let it unfold in a sequence of aftertastes and absorbtions.

We all have different modes of writing, along with diverse reading attachments. When I read My American Chair, poetry becomes glade, it invigorates as clearing, it relishes quietness and there is simply no need for haste.

Under Elizabeth’s travelling eye and ear, the world is poetry, both the world at hand and the world at a distance. She gathers in moments, experience, fascinations, from past and present. We eavesdrop upon details that have caught her eye and heart. Yes! Because this nuanced poetry is testimony to the ability of each day, the every day, to beguile. We might move from a worn-down step to white lies to surgery to a granddaughter to a row of doctors’ receptionists all wearing leopard-spot blouses to poets disappearing between sheets on the washing line. Or the occasion of winning a national book award, when a precious ring is lost.

In the poem clearing, I move from grief to delight to familial love to wit to laugh-out-loud humour. A holidaymaker in France accidentally calls the fire brigade to hire a “a vehicle for six / with room for quantities of luggage”. The fire brigade offers to send “one of our smaller fire engines / but perhaps the ladder truck would be more suitable” (‘The joke of Sapeurs-Pompiers’).

Elizabeth’s poetry is marked by tenderness. In a wry poem, Elizabeth identifies herself and Cilla McQueen as the shortest Poet Laureates. She concludes the poem with a pocket portrait of Cilla:

Her neck grows warm, her neat head bends
over the page, she stretches her arms
and seems to frown and squint.

It is words, you clowns, the other laureate thinks
not sun in her eyes not pain of thought
but heart and pen at work again.

from ‘Cilla, writing’

There is the captivation of poetry as shifting perspective. In ‘At Saint-Chapelle’, the poet stretches out on the floor next to a young man to get a different view of the ceiling. I feel like I am doing this as I reread the collection: stretching out on the floor of the poem to view the ceiling, windows and skylights from different vantage points.

I think our being supine made a prayer
the way scouts cross themselves
for none of us could understand
how we stayed in place, anchored there.

An object might offer a mode of transportation. A pair of bath sheets and a hand towel hanging in the frost, sun, wind and showers for several days:

What does a towel matter in the great
scheme? Would it like to see the stars
or the stars debate what signal it is sending?

from ‘Towels’

A number of poems sing of friends and family, sometimes as moving eulogies, sometimes drawing a family member closer.

I see the windowsill with its figurines and toys.
She the dark sky and the stars and moon.
I hear the rain, she sees the silver spears.

from ‘Little boy on the lower bunk’

My American Chair is prismatic. I am grateful for an extended sojourn in the poems. The rewards are multiple. The freshness tangible. The music sweet harmonies. The travel nourishing. This is a book of intricate and satisfying contemplation.

Elizabeth Smither has written six novels, six collections of short stories and eighteen poetry collections. She has twice won the major award for New Zealand poetry and was the 2001–2003 Te Mata Poet Laureate. In 2004, she was awarded an honorary LittD from the University of Auckland for her contribution to literature and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2008. Her most recent book, Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), won the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.

Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: James Brown’s ‘Love Poem’

Love Poem

A chair is a good place to sit.
You spend a week with a poem.
Then another week. Not your poem. 
Somebody else’s. 

You become friends, then
very good friends.
You like the poem a lot. Maybe 
you are a little in love with the poem.

Every morning, the poem washes its limbs
in a mountain spring. 
You close your eyes and watch.
Then you talk to one another like water. 

This probably goes without saying
but you say it anyway.

James Brown

James Brown’s poems have been widely published in New Zealand and overseas. James’s most recent poetry collection is The Tip Shop (2022), and his Selected Poems were published in 2020. Previous books include Floods Another Chamber (2017); Warm Auditorium (2012); The Year of the Bicycle (2006), which was a finalist in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2007; Favourite Monsters (2002); Lemon; and Go Round Power Please (1996), which won the Best First Book Award for Poetry. His poems are widely anthologised and frequently appear in the annual online anthology Best New Zealand Poems.

Poetry Shelf favourites: Khadro Mohamed’s ‘Pink Lakes’



all they know is the familiar site 
of unturned stomachs
sand-caked faces 
oversized, bloated bellies 
jet-black eyes
sticky lashes
tinted curls with dust caught in between
broken tomato fields
houses made of earth
a heat that rises slowly 
with an intensity that distorts the footprints
and turns leaves into coffee powder and
dehydrated calderas where lakes used to be
even now, the feeling of emptiness sticks to me
like the skeleton of wisteria on the inside of my veranda in winter
like the deep brown undertones of my skin
if only baba could tell them that the earth that once
covered our home gave birth to flower fields 
and entire forests that could swallow science whole
gravity-defying vines with pepper growing on the ends
that the sky dances only for us, leading us through 
oceans, the long-winded spine of our coast and capsized ships

if only they knew the kingdom that once ruled
this rich and vibrant land

has remnants scattered along the earth 
feeding the mouths of goats
that carry stars in their bellies and 
oud string in their U-shaped shoes
if only they could land on the shores 
of pink lakes, baobab silhouettes
and lion calls.


Khadro Mohamed

from We’re All Made of Lightning, We Are Babies Press, 2022

This poem ‘Pink Lakes’ was published in Starling last year and also features in my poetry collection, it remains as one of my favourites because of the imagery and the emotion behind each word. One of my favourite ways to write is through imagery and I think this poem does a good job at using a range of different images to evoke strong feelings. I like that it’s a mix of anger and awe, a mix of darkness and light and that balance creates an immersive experience. It is one that I often return to when I want inspiration to write something new that follows a similar flow. Khadro Mohamed

Khadro Mohamed is a writer and poet from Wellington. Her work often speaks to her own unique experiences as a Somali-New Zealander. Her work has appeared in various online magazines, notably: Starling, Pantograph Punch, The SpinOff and more. Her debut collection of poetry, “We’re All Made of Lightning” can be found in all good bookstores across the motu. 

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Tualima’


Inked blue-black birds
On back of hands
Soar skies
Then land to strut
Over sands leaving
V tracks towards
The malo
The centrepiece
Diamond protector
Where two fishes kiss
Then split
Into diamonds again
Dug deep from skin
Porous mythic origin
Framed by centipedes
They follow, they lead
Along the line
Of spaces in between
The seen unseen.

Fetu mark skies 
And the insides of fale
Rafters of heaven
They number seven generations
Passed down and along
Inked songs sung of the jellyfish
Women’s own symbol
Beautiful to touch
Deadly if crushed
Tatau mark wisdom past 
Tatau are mirrors for today.

Selina Tusitala Marsh


Tualima: Tattoos placed on the back of hands, reserved for Samoan women
Malu: Diamond shape symbolising women’s ability to provide for and protect her loved ones
Fetu: Stars
Fake: Traditional open walled Samoan house

Professor Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English from The University of Auckland and is now a lecturer in the English Department, specialising in Pasifika literature. Her first collection, the bestselling Fast Talking PI, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2010. Marsh represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Poetry Parnassus event in 2012; her work has been translated into Ukrainian and Spanish and has appeared in numerous forms live in schools, museums, parks, billboards, print and online literary journals. As Commonwealth Poet (2016), she composed and performed for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. She became New Zealand’s Poet Laureate in 2017. Her debut children’s book and memoir, Mophead: How Your Difference Makes a Difference, was awarded the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year – 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Poetry Shelf review: A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura by Jessica Howland Kany

A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura: A Novel, Jessica Howland Kany
Quentin Wilson Publishing 2022

Jessica Howland Kany grew up on Manhattan Island, New York City, and has lived on Rakiura Stewart Island for twenty years. She edits Stewart Island News, does desk work for her fisherman husband, raises her sons, and runs. She has worked in the local pub, in various libraries, trapping rats, running a myths and legends club for local children. Her writing has appeared in a number of magazines: Running Times, North & South, New Zealand Geographic, New Zealand Gardener, Wilderness Magazine, Sky & Telescope, The Island Review.

A Runner’s Guide to Rakiura is Jessica’s first novel, and I find it gripping on a number of surprising levels. It’s one of those rare occasions where I would like to sit in a cafe, preferably on Rakiura, and talk about the novel with other readers. It seems to have achieved scant attention in the media bar a few interviews, and didn’t make the NZ Book Award Fiction longlist. I find it rich, complex, thrilling. Lynn Freeman enthused about it, as one of three favourite books of 2022 (see RNZ link below).

For me, the first gripping hook is location. It grips through its succulent depiction of place. That I have been to Rakiura on two occasions makes a difference. Once with a bunch of poets to share a feast of food and to perform to locals in the hall. On that visit, I got up before the sun and watched daylight appear, sat next to the lapping tide, just me in the dark with the stretching beauty. Wonderful visit! And once with my partner, to stay in a cottage courtesy of friends, go for walks, eat mouthwatering fish and chips on the waterfront, go to the Sunday pub quiz, eat in the sublime restaurant up the hill, go for more long walks, chill and recharge. Both occasions were memorable.

The depiction of place and people feels achingly real in the novel, to the point I wondered if the characters were based on Rakiura locals. But in an interview for Stuff, Jessica underlines that the community was too small to go borrowing real people for her characters. She told Susy Ferguson that the only “real” person she mined was herself, and that bits of her appear in all the characters. I spent a weekend reading the book, and it was like I spent a weekend on the island. I could smell, taste and sense it.

Books can be a glorious form of travel.

The second gripping hook is the structure of the novel. The title suggests it is a running guide, but it is also a guide to the island, to history, to life and living, to food, to love. Don’t expect a traditional narrative structure with a beginning, middle and end, and a steady plot line. It is a fabulous compendium of various writings that range from activities to do on the island, poetry, Moby Dick, a set of clues, a genealogy, a treasure map. Sentences are crafted in exquisite ways from the traditional to the linguistically playful. Individual words matter: piquant, puzzling, powerful. Punctuation is also playful – and it works! I feel like I am in the company of someone who adores language and what language can do.

The third gripping hook is that the protagonist, like the author herself, is an outsider who has moved in, who engages with the community in various ways, and sees things in prismatic lights. “Things” become both strange and familiar as I read. Jessica is fascinated with language because the local jargon is often near incomprehensible. She keeps a notebook. She rolls the words on her tongue and in her ear, and the vernacular becomes a treasury. Language is an entry point to an else or otherwhere. For me, it reinforces the notion that place (think people and physical location) is never singular. Place offers multiple fascinating narratives.

The fourth gripping hook is the way a treasure hunt adds to the magnetic pull of reading. Herein lies the need for clues and maps, discovery and a compulsion to search, the links to war and loss. I became more and more gripped by the hunt but I also realised that that the treasure was not just a buried box. It was treasure of the heart, the treasure of finding one’s place in the world, and in a small community.

Yes, this is a guide to running, but it is a guide to so much more. I found it addictive and affecting, it lifted me out of self isolation, and took me to Rakiura for a weekend retreat, for my third “visit”. I loved it.

RNZ interview with Susy Ferguson, Nine to Noon

RNZ Lynn Freeman picks the novel as one of her favourite books of 2022

Interview with Michael Fallow for Stuff

Poetry Shelf poem: Jenny Powell’s ‘Unbuttoning’


Under angry sea under cut of coast
under arctic melt under winter sleet
under webs under leaves under nests under shells
under songs under psalms under cigarette butts
under worn coats under Sunday church
under smeared glass under dawn chants
under pursed lips under empty purses
under white sheets under bleached stains
under negative photos of holiday shots
under take potluck under take your pick
under leaving traces of DNA
under swirling hawks under plucked feathers
under forest cover undercover drones
under glacial husks under breathless dives
under mountain divides under dammed rivers     
under mounting debt under hard labour
under worked to your bones under bankruptcy
under overworked flocks of undertakers
under social upheaval under critical protest
under secret surveillance under constant reprisals                   
under circling cyclonic anxiety
under spewing volcanic uncertainty

under landslide delays under floods of dismay
underneath the unbuttoning of us our grieving hearts.

Jenny Powell

Jenny Powell lives in Dunedin. Her last poetry collection Meeting Rita, (2021) was published by Cold Hub Press. When working on South Dunedin poetry projects she is known as the ‘Dunedin City of Literature South D Poet Lorikeet’.

Poetry Shelf review: ‘like a heart’ – poetry by Louise Wallace, paintings by Anna Perry

(… ) this is the sound of your voice
/ sounding off at the sound / at fascination / the sound of
learning / of signals / the sound of so much potential / this
is the sound of light / and need / this is how it sounds to be
tender / this is the sound of your own skin

Louise Wallace, from ‘talk to your baby’

like a heart is a slim chapbook that accompanied a collaborative exhibition between Louise Wallace and Anna Perry. It was held at Bowen Galley in Wellington during VERB Readers & Writers Festival 2022.

The chapbook is an exquisite compendium of the mundane and the marvellous, through both image and word. It includes a terrific introduction by Sarah Jane Barnett. Daily life is a starting point, a launch pad into the intricate and the complex. Here I am at home occupying the domestic space, the bush, the country roads, and the only real travel beyond these margins is by way of reading and writing. like a heart is both anchor and travel. It is domestic space and it is beyond domestic space.

I am holding the catalogue, standing in the “gallery” with helter-skelter ideas and slow paced absorption. Here I go musing on how poetry is painting and painting is poetry, on how you get a still life that holds you still, and then fills you with body movement: the bowl of fruit, the vase of flowers, a chequered table cloth, bathroom basin, half-open window curtained, the half-drunk cup of tea. There is ripple, reaction, and of course memory. Floods of memory. Heart.

The paintings bring to mind the work of Berta Hansson (1910 – 1994), Frances Hodgkins (1869 – 1940), Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964), Maya Kopitseva (1924 – 2005). I am led to the poetry of Jenny Bornholdt, Blanche Baughan, Alison Wong, Ian Wedde, Fiona Kidman, Cilla McQueen, Sue Wootton, Jill Chan, Angela Andrews, Michele Leggott.

The paintings (oil on wood) are warm, sensual, textured, colour rich, utterly alive. Confessional.

The poems are nuanced, steady-rhythmed like a heart beat, quiet, vital, exposed and exposing, utterly alive. Confessional.

There are gaps and there are bridges, within poem, within painting, and between the one and the other. The domestic space exudes life, physical detail that unlocks anecdote, anecdote that heightens physical detail. Mood swells. I feel like I am holding the collaboration in the palm of my hand, and the travel is glorious.

Bowen Gallery page

Anna Perry is an Elam School of Fine Arts graduate who has exhibited in a range of Aotearoa venues. She has been a finalist in the Wallace Art Awards and the Parkin Drawing Prize. She currently lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin where she works as an early childhood teacher and mother.

Louise Wallace has published three poetry collections with Te Herenga Waka Press, with a new book due May 2023. Louise founded and edits the online journal Starling, and was the 2015 Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. She lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin with husband and young son.

Poetry Shelf favourites: Robert Sullivan picks ‘Waka 100’

Waka 100

Stroke past line 1642 into European time.
Stroke past 1769 and the introduction of the West

Stroke on the approach to 1835
and formal Northern Maori sovereignty.

Stroke into the New World and stop.

Crews alight, consign waka
to memory, family trees, remove the prowed
tauihu, drape the feathered mana
around the whare-womb
of the next crew

who are to remember waka into the beginning
of centuries years minutes hours seconds
long and short hands centred on Greenwich

each person
of waka memory to hold their thoughts,
each person of seagoing
and waterborn descent whose hard waka
are taken away.

And years later,
we ask our ancestors to wake,
whose mokopuna are carving in eyes,
restoring chiselled features, mouths
coming out of wood, genitals, feet planted
on shoulders winding into stars on ceilings,
our ancestors of a culture that has held
its breath through the age of Dominion.
They’ve adzed waka out for them –
the memories, intricate knowledge,
fleet leaders, their reasons for being –
shoulders that carried so many waka –
summoning souls of myriads of names
above hundreds of waka names.

And you waka, who have seen heaven,
the guts of the ocean, brought terror and pleasure,
who have exhausted your crews of home thoughts
who have lifted songs above the waves
of the greatest and deepest ocean,
rise – rise into the air – rise to the breath –
rise above valleys into light and recognition –
rise where all who have risen sing your names.

And you, Urizen, Jupiter, Io Matua Kore,
holder of the compasses – wind compass,
solar compass, compass encompassing known
currents, breather of the first breath
in every breathing creature,
guide the waka between islands,
between years and eyes of the Pacific
out of mythologies to consciousness.

And you stars, the ancestors,
nuclear orbs, red giants, white dwarves,
burn brilliantly, burn on the waka down there,
burn on waka riding valleys,
burn on waka on mountain summits,
burn on waka in the night,
burn on waka past the end of light.

Robert Sullivan from Star Waka

“I think the poem I go back to a lot is ‘Waka 100’ from Star Waka, the one that walks through periods of colonisation to decolonisation. It’s one of the ‘ones’ I think of when I think of the collection, although the 2001st line in the collection is at the end of the back cover poem, ‘A Cover Sail’. The repetition of the word ‘stroke’ is really a reference to the word ‘hoe’ or ‘hoea’ which also means to stroke or to paddle. These words are used in canoe chants to keep time. I’m getting quite close to explaining my own poem so I’ll stop there, except to say that I have been slowly adding poems to Star Waka in my other collections, including my newest one, Tūnui / Comet (AUP, 2022).” Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan (he/him/ia, Ngāpuhi and Kāi Tahu) has won awards for his poetry, editing, and writing for children, including the 2022 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a distinguished contribution to New Zealand poetry. Tunui Comet is his eighth collection of poetry. His book Star Waka (Auckland University Press 1999) has been reprinted eight times, also with a German language edition. Robert’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Massey University. He is a great fan of all kinds of decolonisation.