Tag Archives: Autumn Season

Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Anna Jackson picks vinegar

I could have chosen any of these words – there is a lot to say for velocity in a poem for instance – but I have just read Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl so I am choosing vinegar.  Vinegar Girl is a reworking of the story of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew – a play I have always liked.  Anne Tyler has the heroine, Kate, courted by her father’s research assistant, Pyotr, for visa reasons, and the title comes from his perplexity over the proverb she uses in an argument with him: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  But why would you want to catch flies, he wonders.  Actually what I liked about the book was how sweet it was – I am still buzzing about it – but I think there is a place for sharpness in poetry.  To move from flies to fleas, Donne’s flea poem makes a witty courtship poem because of his acerbic disparagement of the conventional pieties of the girl he is courting – and because he includes in the poem her equally quick disparagement of his self-serving arguments with her squashing of his flea.  I like a certain acerbity in a poem, a sharp-sighted view of the world, that I find in the poetry of Helen Rickerby for example, with her historical portraits in My Iron Spine that are somehow unsparing and sympathetic at the same time, or in the poetry of Anne Kennedy, with the attention she pays to the gaps between what we say and what we think, how we say things and what we mean (perhaps not quite the gap we think), what we begin to say and the revisions we make.  And in Janet Charman’s writing, too, I find the same unsparing sympathy, the same rather unnerving attention to the way language works to express and betray us, and the same resistance I find in both Helen Rickerby’s work and Anne Kennedy’s to the way women’s lives have been told in stories that are not the stories we might want to tell if we were the ones telling them – and we are.

©Anna Jackson 2017


Anna Jackson lives in Island Bay, Wellington, lectures at Victoria University, and has published six collections of poetry, most recently I, Clodia (AUP, 2014).  With Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma she quite often runs conferences and other events for talking and thinking about writing, this year a conference on Poetry and the Essay.

Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Chris Tse picks mother



Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is a personal meditation on the nature of photography. In the first half of the book, he uses photographs from well-known photographers as case studies on how the meaning or “worth” of a photograph can differ from person to person. The second half untangles his response to a photograph of his mother as a child. Though he describes and considers the photograph in detail, notably the way in which it has shaped his understanding of photography, he writes: “I cannot reproduce [the photograph]. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of a thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; it cannot constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound.”

The ‘wound’ he refers to is a photograph’s punctum: a detail “which attracts or distresses [the viewer]”. Since reading Barthes’ book, I’ve been pondering the possible application of studium and punctum to the reading of poetry. There can be details in a poem that stand out to us as mere documentary or social intrigue ­– and then there are the details, lines and images that wound us and draw us in far deeper than we are sometimes willing to go. As readers we will be drawn to different aspects of a poem, but what I love about poetry – much like photography and most other art – is how it can meld historical facts and context with personal viewpoints and unexpected imagery.

I was particularly interested in Barthes’ assumption that his reader would be “indifferent” to this photograph, and as such chose to withhold it from us, claiming some sort of “ownership”. At first, I thought this was disingenuous of Barthes. This means we cannot make a call ourselves and determine whether his assertion is objectively true. He has told us but not shown us, and I felt slighted by his withholding of an integral part of his examination of photography.

This got me thinking about whether or not anyone can determine who a poem might be “for”. When we write a poem, do we cast our poems into the world knowing (hoping) that they will find their way to a very specific reader that we had in mind when we wrote them? I’ve written many poems about my family; in some ways they are also “for” my family – a record, an acknowledgement, a bridge. Despite that, my mum has said that she doesn’t understand some of these poems, even though they’re based on stories she told me about her childhood and she and her siblings appear in them! I’m surprised when people share their (sometimes intimate) responses to these poems. They’re often not the type of reader I imagine reading my poems, so it pleases me that such personal, reflective poems can move others.

On the flipside, I also wonder what sort of poetry is out there “for” me. I enjoy reading a broad range of poets, but I’d be reticent to say I’m the sort of reader these poets were hoping to attract. I like to picture poems and readers as particles floating out in the ether, waiting for a slight nudge or stroke of chance to bring them together. Nothing is ever made for everyone, though reading the vitriolic comments hurled at writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists etc on the internet would have you believing otherwise.


©Chris Tse 2017



Chris Tse is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which was named Best First Book of Poetry at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His poetry and non-fiction have recently appeared in Mimicry, The Atlanta Review and The Pantograph Punch.



Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Frankie McMillan picks slouch


Recycling the Slouch

Lately, I’ve been thinking of the word, ‘slouch.’ And how being a writer exacerbates my poor posture.  I tell myself to sit up straight, that if I keep on writing, crouched over the lap top, my internal organs will get crushed, I’ll develop a dowager’s hump, my spine will be misaligned, nobody will like me. Then as if on cue I come across ‘Its Face’ by Imtiaz Dharker.

The poem, full of the imagery of menace, suggests the threat ‘ …will not come /slouching out of the ground/ It walks along a street /that has a familiar name.’  Familiar.  I see the shaggy haired beast slouching along a street, leaving behind a beery breath, the smell of onions. The lines are clearly a reference to Yeat’s ‘Second Coming’: ‘and what rough beast its hour come round at last/ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’

I google ‘slouch’ because now I’m saying the word out loud and the more I say it the more it seems peculiar, as if I might have got it wrong. (And yet the sound has some relation to the meaning, maybe not onomatopoeia but a sort of sound symbolism).

It appears the ‘Second Coming’ may well be the most pillaged piece of literature in English. References to it crop up in book titles, movies, video games, heavy rock metal bands and pornography.  Even a Russia Today headline recycles a line suggesting that ‘Europe is slouching towards anxiety and war.’

The most interesting definition of slouch comes from the Urban dictionary where it’s cool to be in a ‘slouch.’ A slouch is a period of time usually 2- 4 days when a group of people stay in a confined space to play video games and binge on large quantities of food.

Suddenly my posture straightens.  ‘Slouch’ I say out loud. I hear it as the title of a new poem, and like  others before me, I leap up from my desk, begin to walk the poem into existence.

©Frankie McMillan 2017


Frankie McMillan is a Christchurch short story writer and poet. Her latest book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions, was longlisted for the 2017 NZ Ockham Book Awards. In 2005 she was awarded the Creative New Todd Bursary. Other awards include winner of the New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition in 2009 and winner of the New Zealand Flash Fiction Competition in 2013 and 2015. In 2014 she held the Ursula Bethell writing residency at Canterbury University and in 2017 the University of Auckland/ Michael King writing residency.



Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Helen Rickerby picks recycling



I’ve been thinking a lot about recycling lately. Not so much of the plastic or cans variety, but of a more metaphorical kind. What goes around comes around and what goes in comes out and those same clichés are true in poetry – for me at least – despite the wisdom that it is best to avoid cliché in poetry. Clichés are things that have been said too many times and so become meaningless – a thing to avoid certainly. But recycling in poetry can bring new meaning to the pre-loved.

I often think of my method of writing poetry as a kind of compost heap of words, ideas, symbols, stories. I read, I converse, I watch, I listen, and all these inputs are funnelled into my brain, where they swim around, mix themselves up, settle, rot down a bit, and then some of these inputs emerge as outputs, sometimes in unexpected ways, generally transformed, in a poem. We live, we experience, we consume, we steal, and then we make art from it – though sometimes it feels to me as if it is my subconscious that does the actual work.

A poem that is recently ‘finished’, but with which I am still tinkering (never finished, only abandoned etc – I have been known to keep editing poems even after they are published), is an example of recycling, but of a more deliberate kind than the recycling in the great compost bin of the mind. ‘How to live’ was made up of bits of poems that I had written some time ago, and which had something I wanted in them, but which, in their original form, were not that successful. I mixed them up with new pieces of writing and quotations from various thinkers, many of which I found from going through my journals and recycling what I found in there. I cut and shaped and moved things around until the recycling became upcycling – the poem as a newly re-covered 1970s couch perhaps? Or, in this case, a mosaic made out of pieces of broken crockery might be a more apt metaphor.

Another kind of poetic recycling that is dear to my heart is recycling/reusing/retelling old stories, but with a new perspective, a new vision, a new meaning. Poets aren’t the only people who do this of course – novelist Jeanette Winterson has said, in her introduction to Weight, a retelling of the myth of Atlas, ‘My work is full of Cover Versions. I like to take stories we think we know and record them differently.’ At the moment I’m reading Falling Awake, a new collection by English poet Alice Oswald. There are several poems in this collection that recycle pre-existing stories, especially mythological ones, as you might expect from a classicist. Her work that I love the most is her brilliant and moving book-length poem Memorial, which recycles the ancient text of The Illiad. She cuts out the story, and rather focuses on introducing us to each warrior, a few little details of what was known about who he was – just enough to make us see him as a person – and then describes his death in visceral, tragic and sometimes almost beautiful ways. Each death is personal. Each death is a heartbreak. Without really modernising it all, manages to make it so fresh, so immediate, so new, so relevant.

©Helen Rickerby 2017


Helen Rickerby is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Cinema (Mākaro Press  2014), and is on the home stretch with her next collection, How to Live. She runs boutique publishing company Seraph Press and was co-managing editor of JAAM literary journal from 2005 to 2015. She is particularly interested in genre-crossing poetry, and with Anna Jackson and Angelina Sbroma, is organising a conference about poetry and the essay in December 2017.



Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Renee Liang picks fold



FOLD                                                 The Bone Feeder Opera, 2017


once, we were apart.


two ends of a flat earth. then

something folded

we touched.


voices running downstream

the tops of grasses stirring

                                                a light breeze

                                                like, at dawn.


my words fold. touch.

worlds, fold. touch.       some I barely grasp.


Cantonese is my first language

English my second

                                                a light breeze,

                                                like at dawn.


I am a toddler again


knees folding unfolding finding ignoring

the mind yelling doubt


red light stabs the clouds

                                                injects rolling passion


use poetry. ignore the play.

no, don’t lose the fact you are a playwright.


I can almost grasp it.

there are days when I think

now I can see.


wind rises

                                                ah, a storm


I fold. physical folding            of myself is

all I can do to make it work. will it to work.

come together with you to make it work.

force myself to (make it) work. one day, we will place this


carefully folded piece


in front of an audience.


            something folded

                                                we touched.


red light stabs the clouds

                                                injects rolling passion


                                                a light breeze,

                                                like at dawn.


©Renee Liang


Renee, a second-generation Chinese Kiwi, is a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher and fiction writer. Most recently she has written libretto for an opera, The Bone Feeder (based on her play of the same name) which premiered in March 2017 at the Auckland Arts Festival.  Renee has collaborated on visual arts works, film and music, produced and directed theatre works and worked as a dramaturge.  She organises community arts events such as New Kiwi Women Write, a writing workshop series for migrant women, and is about to publish the eighth anthology of work from this course. She contributes to The Big Idea which links NZ’s arts community. Renee has written, produced and toured seven plays and three chapbooks of poetry. Her next work will be Dominion Rd The Musical, premiering in August. She won the Royal Society of NZ Manhire Prize for science writing in 2012, and a Sir Peter Blake Trust Emerging Leadership award in 2010.


Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Janet Charman picks open


door tender


a trek through bush

arriving at the party breathless


climb onto the verandah

two chairs

one each side of the open door

sit there

with the music

pumping from the lit living room

down the empty hall


then who should step up?

out of the dark

a sparkler

a hum

as if with this starry fingering

the sinews of the self

are vibrating


at once



©Janet Charman  2017 (March 19th)


‘door tender’ is one of the etymological origins of clitoris.

That said this poem is set at a borderspace of self-fragilization, so the door is open.


Janet Charman’s essay ‘A piece of why’ appears in the current issue of The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook (Jack Ross Ed., 2017, PNZ, Massey University Press). In it some of the patriarchal implications of Allen Curnow’s three post-war Caxton and Penguin poetry anthologies are discussed.  Drawing in this, on the Matrixial theories of Bracha Ettinger, in terms of the affects and effects of transmissive trauma.



Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Vana Manasiadis picks crease


The crease of things

‘Creaste’ or ‘ridge’ or ‘fold in a length of cloth which might produce a crest’: the crease in poetry, the tuck and bend is what I read and write for.

Aren’t we all curious about each pinch and puck that pulls against the smooth; the consequence of weight and then the lifting?  The crease points to the something hidden underneath, the pitch interior below the skin that sees the light.

Line, mark, wrinkle, nick against the surface: we look for the transgressions and antidotes to flatness.  That’s why we track disruptions on the black sands, cracks in the pavements outside our schools and houses, crows-feet, stretch-marks, nasolabial folds.

Cellular realignment is another way to look at it, this crease in poetry, this specificity, this chiselled, permanent tatau.  There are inscriptions in the laugh lines: Thracian women tattooing each other in commemoration, and secreting gem-stones in their hems.

For the hunters it’s the topography that counts: its contours, troughs, and mud-flats.  Because above all, the crease calls for navigation, and like an origami crane, no poem can fly without a line of cockles in its gut —


©Vana Manasiadis 2017


Vana Manasiadis most recently edited and translated Greek poetry for the bilingual poetry collection Ναυάγια/Καταφύγια:Shipwrecks/Shelters (Seraph Press, 2016).  She lives in Auckland and teaches at AUT.




Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Michael Harlow picks light (and dark)


A glancing smile


On a run-down street, its sagging buildings, cracked footpaths

and stunted trees, shadows everywhere and on the move.

And passing by, here’s that someone you will never know,

with a glancing smile in her eyes that’s meant to touch yours,

for no other reason than it must—for the shortest, longest time.

That wakes someone in yourself who wants to say, despite

all the running darkness in the world, that just now, there is

out of the dark the light, inside a glancing smile.


©Michael Harlow 2017


Michael Harlow’s Nothing For It But To Sing, won the Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry and is published by Otago University Press.  He has been awarded the Beatson Prize for poetry, and in 2014 the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Distinguished Contribution to Poetry in NZ.  He has published tens books of poetry, two of which have been shortlisted for the National Book Awards.  In collaboration with NZ-Suisse composer Kit Powell, as a librettist he has composed some thirteen Performance Works, many of which have been performed in Switzerland, Germany, France and New Zealand.  He lives in Central Otago (NZ) and works as a writer, editor, and Jungian therapist.









Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – James Brown unpicks



Not Writing

The longer the week drags on, the more I realise I’m not going to be able to write anything creative for Paula. I feel flat and dull. I’d finally handed a poetry manuscript to VUP the previous week and am in a post-hand-in slump.

Paula had provided a long list of words as sparks, but now I couldn’t face the decision I would have to make if I returned to them. The tyranny of choice. I recall there were a lot of poetic words – ‘lilt’ was one – and of course ‘cycling’ had caught my eye. But I don’t want to write about cycling. I’m also not even sure what I’m supposed to produce. Should I be writing a poem?

It’s like I’m struggling with one of the creative writing exercises I set my students at the IIML, and I begin to think about creative sparks – when something takes off and when it doesn’t. And, let’s be honest, mostly things don’t. If I could sit down and write a book of poems like I’m typing this, it would take about a week. My last poetry book took seven years. Not full-time, of course, but I suddenly realise how much of my writing takes place off the page. Gazing around, thinking, reading, listening to music, people, nothing … actually writing is only part of it. I recently read (some of) The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood – a book of interviews with writers. I didn’t recognise any poets; certainly the interviewees I read were prose writers and they presented themselves as impressively diligent, rising early to pound out word counts, often leaving off mid-flight or sentence so they could jump straight back into the action the next morning without wasteful floundering.

I wonder how different the process is for poets. The poetry writer’s room, if there’s a room at all, would, I imagine, witness much less keyboard action. For me, poetry writing is beset with guilty spaces. But like the prose writers, I too have to leave off poems and return to them – they’re rarely completed in one sitting – though it may be several days before I can get back to them. Time and space are good for those poems I kid myself are finished, but not for a poem still trying to ignite. The initial spark may go out. Poetry is a bit like lighting a fire: you often have to wander away to gather fuel, but you need to return and keep blowing on it for it to really take hold and raze everything in your suburb – or however far it’s going to travel.

Okay, most poems are more candle than bushfire, but what makes some reach ignition temperature and some not? I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no special formula for mine (though I can think of things that don’t help), but they generally begin with an idea, phrase or word that interests me. I got a couple of poems out of the word ‘hibiscus’. And this very week, flat and dull as I feel, I tried to get a poem going using a particular kind of word. The result so far has been amusing, but pointless. I also created a small found poem using a couple of sentences from a friend’s email. I wonder if my interest in found poetry stems from being averse to poetry’s emotive and moralistic excesses.

At this point I remember Paula saying something about ‘a couple of paragraphs’. Eek. I was just getting going. Maybe there is something in triggers and deadlines.


©James Brown 2017

James Brown’s new poetry collection, probably called /Floods Another Chamber/, will be published by VUP later in 2017.

Poetry Shelf Autumn Season: Poets pick a word – Nina Powles picks salt

On Salt & Kitchen Poems

I got back into writing poetry by writing about food. I hadn’t written anything in months so I decided to start keeping a food diary of everything I love to eat in Shanghai, where I currently live. Eventually the diary became a blog. I don’t do it for any of the reasons people usually keep track of what they eat. I do it in order to remember, to record and recreate the things that bring me comfort and joy.

Silken tofu cut into the shape of a flower floating in soup, tiny dried shrimps and pickled vegetables sprinkled on top, caramelised spring onions tossed with noodles in a sweet and salty black bean sauce.

When I started writing bits and pieces that resembled poems again, I couldn’t get away from salt and sugar and teeth and skin. I keep coming back to the many food memories that map out my childhood spent partly in New Zealand, in the United States, in Malaysia and in China.

Maybe writing a poem is like preserving something in salt. Like putting a memory or a sensation in a sealed jar and letting a chemical change take place.

A few weeks ago I attended a haiku writing workshop in Shanghai run by the Japanese-American poet Miho Kinnas. I’d never written a haiku before and didn’t know much about them. Miho explained that the form was especially popular with women poets in ancient Japan. The tradition of women writing haiku has continued into contemporary Japan but some of these poems have been scornfully labelled “kitchen haiku”, devalued by literary critics because of their domestic subject matter.

So I decided to try and write some kitchen haiku.



I unwrap lotus leaves

with my teeth

a steamed heart inside



spread salt into

the cracks and crush until

our skins break



girl sits alone

peeling dragonfruit

with pink fingers

As part of my mission to read more poetry by women of colour from all over the world, I recently discovered the work of Safia Elhillo, a young Sudanese-American poet whose first book The January Children was published this year by the University of Nebraska Press. Her poems often take us deep into the minute details that make up the landscape of her origins, both real and imaginary.

Her work makes me think a lot about tracing my own history—both the things I remember and the things I’m told I should remember—through kitchens, childhood haunts, living rooms, & conversations between grandmothers, mothers, aunts, meals made by hand, spices and seasonings, words I hear passed between them at the kitchen table. Below is an excerpt from Safia Elhillo’s poem “Old Wives’ Tales”:

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 9.33.47 pm.png

© Nina Powles 2017

Nina Powles is a poet and writer from Wellington, currently living in China. She is the author of the chapbook Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014) and several poetry zines. Her poems and essays have recently appeared in The Sapling, Mimicry, Shabby Doll House and Sport. Check out her blog for more.

Listen to Nina in conversation with Lynda Chanwai-Earle on National Radio as she makes dumplings. It is terrific.