This world is only ever
water, rock and black air.
It cannot accommodate us;
we cannot, will not complain
when the water deafens and knocks us.
We shut our eyes
and meet its volleyed blackness.
©Sarah Broom, from ‘Caving,’ in Tigers at Awhitu (Auckland University Press, 2010)
The Sarah Broom Poetry Award supports New Zealand writers through an annual poetry competition. The finalists are invited to read their work at an Auckland Writers Festival event and the winner gets a substantial cash prize. This award matters not only because it offers a financial reprieve for a poet, but because it showcases our poetry. We are an eclectic bunch writing in diverse ways with diverse preoccupations within diverse communities. The award also returns me to Sarah’s poetry; an annual pilgrimage for which I am grateful. Her work continues to resonate on a personal level and along the fertile line, ever revealing, ever fresh and vital. I applaud Michael Gleissner and Sarah Ross for all the hard, behind-the scenes the work they undertake to make this award happen. Thank you.
This year’s judge is Carol Ann Duffy who will also appear at the Auckland Writers Festival.
The finalists: Sandi King, Cliff Fell, Hera Lindsay Bird
Where the World Looks In
It’s true that everything’s always moving:
The way a sunbeam glances off the corner of the fridge
Or the shadows turn from violet to indigo.
Or the way your voice will slip a semi-tone
When you’re talking on the phone
And you think someone else is listening.
So I’ll wait for you under the first arch of the bridge
Where the river longs to persist,
To abide beyond its turbulence and flow
And all the other laws that words will not obey.
And I want the words to say
Something else again
Or just to be there when the river is blessed
Like a mirror where the world looks in.
© Cliff Fell
The Way Home
- The condition of being flamboyant
- A group of flamingos
The lush wetland
of my unconscious mind is squawking
in the same way I formed thoughts
before I was old enough to know words.
Just out of sight I hear
wildlife, and the shore
bright with the colours of sunset
discarded in the morning
I reach through the wire fence
and grasp the legacy left to me,
and fragile. Thousands
of flamingo feathers
which I scoop secretly into a bag
and carry back to the motel
to admire the fluffy whiteness
of the tiniest feathers. I lay
the long ones in a row
their intensity of pigment,
their readiness for flight.
Sometimes I dream that my body
is wrapped in a bolt of organza.
a hood-to-ankle garment.
In the mirror, behind my reflection
I can see the Manawatu Estuary
coloured in with my childhood
dreams. I lift primary flight feathers
to the sky, soar
over road and cars and houses
all the way back to Nana and Grandad’s lawn.
In Nana’s flowerbed I find
two ornamental flamingos, pink
so pink. She bends as if to feed
from the shallows, he waits
fondly beside her.
They are translating the garden
I shelter with these two as long as I can hold
then wade on home, finally
into the flamboyance of flamingos.
© Sandi King
The Sarah Broom Poetry Award is a terrific supporter of New Zealand poets and poetry. Can you name a New Zealand poetry book that has resonated with you in the past few years. What do you love about it?
Sandi: Bill Nelson’s collection Memorandum of Understanding is stuffed with the kind of poetry I love to read. There is variety in the content that sparks my imagination. Some of the poems have an ambiguity, but of a giving nature. If the poem could talk to the reader it might say ‘I have more. Come back tomorrow and read me again.’ His clutch of poems titled ’How to do just about anything’ feature a liberal use of the second person that I enjoy.
Cliff: There are quite a few, but I particularly admired Dinah Hawken’s Ocean and Stone and recently enjoyed reading Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful. But the book that resonated most with me in recent years is Rachel Bush’s Thought Horses, published shortly after she died in March 2016. It’s not only that she lived in Nelson and that I’d read some of the poems as they came into being, but the way the collection finds her – particularly in poems I hadn’t seen before – facing her death with such fortitude, wit and wisdom. Rachel has always had this wonderfully elastic syntax, and a giddy playfulness to the way she can shift focus in a poem. All of that is heightened in this collection. It’s a book that’s marvellously re-readable. I discover little gems I hadn’t noticed before, nuances and images, every time I enter its lost domain, its domain of loss.
Hera: I try not to talk about why I like certain books because I always end up lying by accident, but I always like reading Geoff Cochrane. Can everyone just take my word for it? It’s better this way.
What are some of the strengths or weaknesses of New Zealand poetry and its communities?
Sandi: I have found a lot of generosity. Writing groups meet together to nuture each other, and develop their work into the best it can be. We have organisers like Bill Sutton who organise events where poets can come together and hear each other. We have poetry competitions which offer hope to everyone who enters. There are still opportunities to be published thanks to the commitment of small publishers, plus a variety of journals and websites, and there are excellent educational opportunities available. New Zealand has talented mentors too – I have been extremely fortunate to be mentored by Renée.
Cliff: There’s so much going on in New Zealand poetry, you would have to be very dedicated to keep up with it all. Its strengths are its poets, of course. They’re probably its weaknesses, too. But I’d imagine that New Zealand poetry is generally thriving, gaining greater recognition overseas. Cheers to all responsible for that! As for its communities, apart from the point that individuals can create their own community, their following, these days, I’ve had a notion for a while that in the arts, in poetry in particular, in its real nose-to-the-grindstone communities, New Zealand resembles the city-states of late medieval, Renaissance Italy, with their arts flowering in different styles. There are similar alliances and rivalries and moments of cross-pollination, as there were then, and distinct local sounds or voices or concerns are beginning to develop, the way the Dunedin sound developed in music. The rivalries in poetry have been going on for generations, as we all know. All of this is, obviously, down to our demographics – relatively small population – and our geography, our topography, in that it means journeying between centres is bound to be epic, on some level. Who would the Papal State be in such an analogy? CNZ, I suppose, with the patronage it confers. Of course, this is a notion – and in some ways a ridiculous one – that I would favour, indulge in, due to my interests. Also, I’m an outsider, so that probably colours the way I see things. But I think there’s a kernel of truth to it. We may not exactly have to learn the taste of other people’s bread, but it’s not a bad trope for how things are.
con: poor overall fighting technique, weak in physical combat department
pro: lots of wine
con: nobody to talk to at parties about Survivor
pro: except Louise Wallace and Holly Hunter
con: small population size leading to difficulty maintaining rigorous critical culture, ancient confusing unexplained feuds going back decades, lack of money, too many poems about mountains, easily hurt feelings
pro: if people hate you they have the decency to do it in private, to their friends and loved ones
con: James K Baxter
pro: oh relax, I’m only joking
Do you see your shortlisted collection as a surprising departure from your previous poetry, a continuation and deepening engagement with your poetic concerns, or something altogether different?
Sandi: To be honest, I was excited by the opportunity to have my work read by Carol Ann Duffy and looked through everything I have written for poems I thought she might like to read.
Cliff: More a continuation probably, though I’m not sure – and either way, hopefully some kind of a deepening engagement. To be honest I was amazed that my entry came together at all, as I hadn’t really been writing for a while. I wrote two new poems on the deadline day and heavily revised four others. When I looked at the collection again, on learning that I’d been shortlisted, one thing that did surprise me was to discover that three of the poems were ekphrastic in nature. How that came about, I really don’t know.
Hera: Some are following on from my first book, others are a little looser. I’m trying as hard as possible not to think about it while I write. The phrase poetic concerns is such a great one. It always makes me think of Byron having trouble with his swans.
I am putting you on the spot here, but if you were reviewing your collection, what three words would characterise its allure?
Sandi: Sensual, adventurous, satisfying
Cliff: Yes, horribly on the spot, as I would hate to review my own collection. It would be a public self-mauling that no one would want to witness. Flawed. Flibbertigibbet. Fatal. Will they do? Oh, and Astronomy. That’s four words, but there are plenty of stones and stars, and also caves, in my poems. Too many probably.
Hera: Silly, unsettling, imagistic
When you write a poem, what talismans or cornerstones or spark plugs or jump leads or release pads do you favour? I am thinking, for example, of the way some poets are drawn to musicality, storytelling or the element of surprise.
Sandi: Many of my poems are portrait poems or persona poems. The beginning of a poem can sometimes be the sound of the character’s voice, and trying to thread that into the poem
so that maybe the reader can imagine the character speak when she reads the poem. Often a segment of story develops from the portrait as I write. Otherwise a poem will begin from a little stub – something I have seen, heard or felt. When I discover a stub, I write it down. Months later, I’ll look at that stub again, and sometimes it will be the start of a poem. It’s like taking cuttings from people’s gardens – you achieve variety without having to try too hard for it.
Cliff: Yes, I certainly believe in talismans and little rituals. I once knew a builder in Scotland who wouldn’t go up on a roof without a kilt pin in his trouser pocket. It’s easy enough to understand why, when you think about it. In my case, well, first up I consume a quantity of petrol. That’s for the spark plugs. Then I get into some kind of trance-like fire-eating routine, blowing flames around the room, hoping the poem and all my electric guitars will spontaneously combust. Or I imagine I’m being carried in a coffin into what has been billed on the invitation as an ‘outrageous’ party. This is in fact a gate-crasher’s ploy, as the hosts have notably declined to invite me. I only learned about this exclusive mother of all parties when I saw an invitation a so-called friend taunted me with. So when the night-watchmen I’ve hired as coffin-bearers carry me through the door, we thump into the hubbub, noise of glasses being smashed, voices, music, people banging on the lid and so on. I think they must have set me down in the middle of the dance floor, because when I emerge, naked as the day I was born, there she is, Topsie-Terpsichore, spinning and pirouetting and doing the scorpion in my arms. And we dance all night. Maybe it’s West Coast swing, on the track to begin with, but then it gets crazy, circle dancing around the coffin, big bass lines pumping out of the PA and deep into your rib-cage, and a frenzy of many arms and legs. Later, there will be sweaty, abandoned sex on the grassy shores of a lake. Moonlight and embarrassment, of course. A boat, though perhaps it’s just the coffin floating away. I seem to remember there was a high wire-mesh fence we had to clamber over. Stuff like that. It all helps.
Hera: Everything at once. I like poetry pushed to its stylistic limits. For instance, take a poem about a swan in the moonlight. That might be a good poem. But what if…… instead of one swan you had a thousand swans? And what if instead of moonlight……the moon had never existed & instead there was a giant neon exit sign, hanging in the sky? I’m just being indirect because I don’t want to write a manifesto too early. I think one of the tasks of poetry is to teach yourself to write as many different ways as possible, and then to trick yourself into never thinking about them in the moment. Like mixed martial arts, if people used mixed martial arts to express their feelings about autumn.
Hera Lindsay Bird is a poet from Wellington. Her debut self-titled collection Hera Lindsay Bird was published in 2016 with Victoria University Press; it has been reprinted many times, and is currently on the shortlist for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She has an MA in poetry from the International Institute of Modern Letters where she won the 2011 Adam Prize in Creative Writing. She works as a bookseller at Unity Books Wellington.
Bird’s work has been featured in The Guardian and Vice Magazine. She has been published in a number of journals and publications including Best New Zealand Poems, The Spinoff, The Listener, The Hairpin, Hue & Cry and Sport. In 2016 she ran a free, ten-week creative nonfiction class called TMI. She likes watching the figure skating at the winter Olympics and murder mysteries set on trains.
Cliff Fell is the author of three books of poems, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet (illustrated by Fiona Johnstone, Last Leaf Press, 2014), Beauty of the Badlands (Victoria University Press, 2008) and The Adulterer’s Bible (Victoria University Press, 2003). The Adulterer’s Bible was awarded the 2002 Adam Prize in Creative Writing and the 2004 Jessie Mackay Prize for Best First Book of Poetry. Other poems have appeared in the online anthology Best New Zealand Poems and in various New Zealand and overseas publications. He has been a regular contributor to the RNZ National Nights programme, talking about poetry.
Born in London to an English mother and New Zealand father, he has lived in New Zealand since 1997 and worked, sometimes very briefly – and tenuously – as a roadie, musician, bank clerk, bar-tender and also in farming, forestry, and film-making. He studied History and Archaeology at Exeter University, received an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and currently lives in the Motueka river catchment. He is a tutor of creative writing in the Arts programme at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.
Sandi King (previously known as Sandi Sartorelli) is a New Zealander of English, Irish, Danish and Moravian descent. She currently lives in the Hutt Valley with her youngest son Guy. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Whitireia New Zealand. Her work has been published in a number of journals and websites including 4th Floor, Blackmail Press, JAAM, Renée’s Wednesday Busk, Snorkel and takahē.
In 2013 three of King’s poems were highly commended in the Caselberg Trust Prize, the New Zealand Poetry Society Competition and takahē Poetry Competition. In 2015 her poem ‘Timing’ took first place in the Upper Hutt Poetry Competition. The most recent publication to include her work is the book Poetical Bridges/Poduri Lirice (2017), a collection of New Zealand poetry translated into Romanian, and Romanian poetry translated into English, created by Valentina Teclici.
Hera Lindsay Bird, Cliff Fell, and Sandi King will read poems from their submissions at the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize event at the Auckland Writers Festival on Sunday 21 May 4.30-5.30pm.
This is a free event. Guest judge Carol Ann Duffy will introduce the finalists and announce the winner of this year’s prize.