‘A poem is / a ripple of words / on water wind-huffed’
from ‘Wind, Song and Rain’ in Sap-wood & Milk, Caveman Press, 1972
The ocean is my go-to salve. Before we went into level-four lockdown last year, I went to Te Henga Bethells Beach near where I live. I stood by the water’s edge as the sun was coming up. The air was clear and salty. Not a soul in sight. I breathed in and I breathed out, and I saved that sublime moment for later. Like a screen shot. Over the ensuing weeks in lockdown, I was able to return to that spot, my eyes on the water, my senses feeding on wildness and beauty. Look through my poetry collections and you will see I can’t keep the ocean out. It is always there somewhere.
Unsurprisingly there is a profusion of water poems in Aotearoa – think the ocean yes, but lakes and rivers and floods and dripping taps. This was an impossible challenge: whittling all the poems I loved down to a handful. I hadn’t factored in leaving poems out when I came up with my theme-season plan. Some poets are particularly drawn to water. Kiri Piahana-Wong’s sublime collection Night Swimming is like an ode to water. The same can be said of Lynn Davidson’s glorious collections How to Live by the Sea and The Islander. Or read your way through Apirana Taylor’s poems and you will find they are water rich – and his poetry flows like water currents. As does the poetry of Hone Tuwhare. Again water rich. And of course the poetry of Dinah Hawken, with her lyrical eye bringing the natural world closer, water a constant companion.
I have so loved this water sojourn. The poems are not so much about water but have a water presence. I am grateful to all the poets and publishers who continue to support my season of themes.
Girl from Tuvalu
girl sits on porch
back of house
salt water skimming
like her nation
nowhere to go
held up by
An Inconvenient Truth
this week her name is Siligia
next week her name will be
Girl from Tuvalu: Environmental Refugee
her face is 10,000
her land is 10 square miles
she is a dot
below someone’s accidental finger
the bare-chested boys
bravado in sea spray
running on tar-seal
they are cars
they are bikes
they are fish out of water
moana waves a hand
a yellow median strip
moana laps at pole houses
in spring tide
gulping lost piglets
and flapping washing
girl sits on porch
Selina Tusitala Marsh
from Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013, picked by Amy Brown
The body began to balance itself
It started to rain
and it was not clear
if this would last a short time
or a long time
so I got my husband
and the librarian
and the owner of the local chip shop
and the humourless lady who failed me
on eyesight at the driver licence testing station
into a boat
though it was extremely cramped
and they rowed
out to the open ocean
and sat quiet
from Bad Things, Victoria University Press, 2017
The Lid Slides Back
Let me open
my pencil-case made of native woods.
It is light and dark in bits and pieces.
The lid slides back.
The seven pencils are there, called Lakeland.
I could draw a sunset.
I could draw the stars.
I could draw this quiet tree beside the water.
from The Victims of Lightning, Victoria University Press, 2010
Train of thought
I thought of vitality,
I thought of course of a spring.
I thought of the give inherent
in the abiding nature of things.
I thought of the curve of a hammock
between amenable trees.
I thought of the lake beyond it
calm and inwardly fluent
and then I was thinking of you.
You appeared out of the water
like a saint appearing from nowhere
as bright as a shining cuckoo
then dripping you stood in the doorway
as delighted by friendship as water
and beaming welcomed us in.
The ripples are small enough. The lake surface is the lake surface is the lake surface. All lakes exist in the same space of memory. Deep dark water. The scent of stones. I think of a swift angle to depth. I think of the sound when you’re underwater and the gravel shifts beneath your feet. I think of all the colours of water that look black, that look wine dark, that look like youth looking back at me. I can barely take it. I can see the lake breathing. I am the lake breathing. The lake breathes and I breathe and the depth of both of us is able to be felt by finger, by phone, by feeling. Don’t ask what you don’t want to know. I ask everything. I want to know nothing, everything, just tell it all to me. The gravel shifts again with the long-range round echo of stones underwater. I am separate parts breathing together. You say that I am a little secret. You say, as your brain seizes, that you have lost the way. Your eyes flicker and flutter under your eyelids as you try to find what’s lost, what’s gone forever. Nothing can really be found. I am never located when I want to be located the most. I am instead still that teenager on the side of the road with a cello hard case for company. I forget I exist. You forget I exist. I’ve forgotten I’ve believed I’ve not existed before. I’ve not forgotten you. Never forgotten your face. Could never. Would never. I don’t know how to communicate this with you in a way that you’ll understand. My mouth waters. I am back in the lake again. Except I’m the lake and I’m water myself.
To the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep,
to the drip, to the weep, to the rock, to the rill,
to the fell, to the wash, to the splash, to the rush,
to the bush, to the creep, to the hush;
to the down, to the plain, to the green, to the drift,
to the rift, to the graft, to the shift, to the break,
to the shake, to the lift, to the fall, to the wall,
to the heft, to the cleft, to the call;
to the bend, to the wend, to the wind, to the run,
to the roam, to the rend, to the seam, to the foam,
to the scum, to the moss, to the mist, to the grist,
to the grind, to the grain, to the dust;
to the core, to the gorge, to the grove, to the cave,
to the dive, to the shore, to the grave, to the give,
to the leave, to the oar, to the spring, to the tongue,
to the ring, to the roar, to the song;
to the surge, to the flood, to the blood, to the urge
to the rage, to the rod, to the rood, to the vein,
to the chain, to the town, to the side, to the slide,
to the breadth, to the depth, to the tide;
to the neap, to the deep, to the drag, to the fog,
to the stick, to the slick, to the sweep, to the twig,
to the roll, to the tug, to the roil, to the shell,
to the swell, to the ebb, to the well, to the sea.
from Flow, Victoria University Press, 2017, picked by Amy Brown
as the tide
i am walking the path
around hobson bay point
nasturtiums grow up the cliff face
and the pitted mud has a scattering
of thick jagged pottery, bricks
faded edam cheese packaging
and a rusty dish rack
all of the green algae
is swept in one direction
i am only aware of the blanketed crabs
when a cloud passes overhead
and they escape in unison
into their corresponding homes
claws nestling under aprons
my dad talks about my depression
as if it were the tide
he says, ‘well, you know,
the water is bound to go in and out’
and to ‘hunker down’
he’s trying to make sense of it
in a way he understands
so he can show me his working
i look out to that expanse,
bare now to the beaks of grey herons, which i realise is me
in this metaphor
Ode to the water molecule
‘Our body is a moulded river.’ Novalis
Promiscuous, by some accounts,
or simply playing the field—
indecisive, yet so decidedly
yourself, you are
all these things: ice flow,
bend of a river,
on an aeroplane window, fire-
bucket or drop
in the ocean, dissolver of a morning’s
mountain range. We envy you
the way you get along
with yourself, as glacier
or humidity of
an overheated afternoon. A glass
of pitch-black water
drunk at night.
Catchment and run-off. Water,
we allow you
your flat roof and rocky bed
but there are also
tricks we have taught you:
papal fountain, water
feature, liquid chandelier and
boiling jug. It is, however,
your own mind
you make up, adept as you are
—‘the universal solvent’—
at both piecing together
and tearing apart. With or
without us, you find your own
structure, an O and two H’s
in the infinity
of your three-sidedness, your
triangulation, at once trinity
and tricycle. Two oars
and a dinghy, rowed.
Colourless, but for
‘an inherent hint of blue’,
molecule in which
we are made soluble, the sum
of our water-based parts—
resourceful, exemplary friend
kindred spirit – not one to jump to
as you would traverse a stream, but rather
as you would leap in. Fluid,
by nature—given to swimming more than
with rain as your spokesperson,
tattooed surface of a river’s
snowfall and drift,
you enter the flow
of each of us, turn us around
as you turn yourself around
first appeared (in a typeset and ‘drawn’ version) in PN Review 252, in the UK, March-April 2020.
First dusk of autumn here and i swim
through fish flicker through
little erasing tails
that rub the seafloor’s light-net out
that ink in night
down south winter warms to her task and
will arrive smelling of wet shale in
a veil of rain
bats flicker into leaves
to rub the tree-cast light-net from the grass
to ink in night
You yearn so much you could be a yacht. Your mind has already set sail. It takes a few days to arrive
at island pace, but soon you are barefoot on the sand, the slim waves testing your feet
like health professionals. You toe shells, sea glass, and odd things that have drifted for years and finally washed up here.
You drop your towel and step out of your togs, ungainly, first your right foot, then
the other stepping down the sand to stand in the water.
There is no discernible difference in temperature. You breaststroke in the lazy blue.
A guy passing in a rowboat says, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ And it is. Your body afloat in salt as if cured.
from Poetry, 2018, picked by Frankie McMillan
Write the sea in your heart, write the rain.
Only that. Words are a poor habit. Let
the wind slide under your ribs let the rain,
for no one will love you the way
you write to be loved,
and your name only a name – but the green
edge of a wave made knifish by light
or some hurtful winter clarity in the water:
a bright sheet of sky against the horizon as if
breathing, as if the air itself
is your own self, waiting. Only there.
And know how your heart is the green deep sea,
dark and clear and untame,
and its chambers are salt and the beating
of waves, and the waves breaking,
and the waves.
from Takahē, issue 90
Deep water talk
In honour of Hone Tuwhare
& no-one knows
if your eyes are
blurred red from
the wind, too
much sun, or the
tears streaking your
face that could be
tears or just lines of
dried salt, who
& you never can tell
if you are seasick,
drunk, or just
symptoms are the
& sea and sky merge
until the horizon is
nothing but an
endless blue line
in every direction,
so that you are sailing,
not on the sea, as you
thought, but in a
perfectly blue, circular
bowl, never leaving
& you wonder who
is moving, you or
the clouds racing
by the mast-head
& you wonder if
those dark shapes
in the water are
sharks, shadows, or
nothing but old fears
chasing along behind
& the great mass of
land recedes, you
forget you were
feeling the pull
of ancient genes
—in every tide, your
blood sings against
& food never tasted
so good, or water
never conserved water
by drinking wine
and coke; and rum
and coke; and can
after can of cold
& your sleep is
by the roar of traffic
on the highway,
but by the creaks
and twangs of your
ship as she pitches
and moans through
the dark ocean,
& you wonder—
where did that bird,
that great gull perching
on the bowsprit,
from Night Swimming, Anahera Press, 2013
Emma Barnes lives and writes in Pōneke / Wellington. They have just released their first book I Am In Bed With You. For the last two years they’ve been working with Chris Tse on an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and Takatāpui writing to be released this year by Auckland University Press. They work in Tech and spend a lot of time picking heavy things up and putting them back down again.
Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and is the author of four poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP 2017). Bug Week and Other Stories recently won the Ockham NZ Book Fiction Award 2021.
James Brown’sSelected Poems was published by VUP in 2020. He is working on a new book.
Lynn Davidson’s latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016. In 2011 she was Visiting Artist at Massey University. She won the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Award, 2020 and is the 2021 Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing and teaches creative writing. She recently returned to New Zealand after four years living and writing in Edinburgh.
Dinah Hawken lives and writes in Paekakariki. Her ninth collection of poetry, Sea-light, will be published by Victoria University Press in August, 2021.
Lily Holloway is a queer nacho-enthusiast. She is forthcoming in AUP New Poets 8 and you can find her work here.
Olivia Macassey’s poems have appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Takahē, Landfall, Brief, Otoliths, Rabbit and other places. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Burnt Hotel (Titus). Her website
Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.
Selina Tusitala Marsh (ONZM, FRSNZ) is the former New Zealand Poet Laureate and has performed poetry for primary schoolers and presidents (Obama), queers and Queens (HRH Elizabeth II). She has published three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, Fast Talking PI (2009), Dark Sparring (2013), Tightrope (2017) and an award-winning graphic memoir, Mophead (Auckland University Press, 2019) followed by Mophead TU (2020), dubbed as ‘colonialism 101 for kids’.
Gregory O’Brien recently completed a new collection of poems Streets and Mountains and is presently working on a monograph about artist Don Binney for AUP.
Kiri Piahana-Wong is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press. She lives in Auckland.
Mere Taito is a poet living and working in Kirikiriroa. She is interested in the way poetry can be used to revitalise minority Indigenous languages like Fäeag Rotuạm ta.
Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago.
For end-of-year Poetry Shelf wraps, I have usually invited a swag of writers to pick books they have loved. It has always turned into a mammoth reading celebration, mostly of poetry, but with a little of everything else. This year I decided to invite a handful of poets, whose new books I have loved in 2020, to make a few poetry picks.
My review and interview output has been compromised this year. I still have perhaps 20 poetry books published in Aotearoa I have not yet reviewed, and I do hope to write about some of these over summer.
The 8 Poets
Among a number of other terrific poetry reads (Oscar Upperton’s New Transgender Blockbusters for example), here are eight books that struck me deep this year (with my review links). Tusiata Avia’s The Savager Coloniser (VUP) is the kind of book that tears you apart and you feel so utterly glad to have read it. Tusiata has put herself, her rage, experience, memories, loves, prayers, dreads into poems that face racism, terrorism, Covid, inequity, colonialism, being a mother and a daughter, being human. An extraordinary book. Rhian Gallagher’s Far-Flung (AUP) is a sumptuous arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months. Her poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the contemplative in poems that reflect upon the land, experiences, relationships.
Rata Gordon‘s Second Person (VUP) is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. Reading Mohamed Hassan’s new collection, National Anthem (Dead Bird Books), opens up what poetry can do. It widens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you think. It gets you listening. It makes you think about things that matter. Humanity. Family. Soil. Ahh!
Bill Manhire‘s Wow (VUP) will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters. The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you. Like Rhian’s collection this is a book of poetry astonishments. Natalie Morrison‘s (VUP) debut collection Pins is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, resonant white space, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. I filled with joy as I read this book.
Jackson Nieuwland‘s I am a Human Being (Compound Press), so long in the making, lovingly crafted with the loving support of friends, with both doubt and with grace (think poise, fluency, adroitness), this book, in its lists and its expansions, moves beyond the need for a single self-defining word. I knew within a page or two, this book was a slow-speed read to savour with joy. Nina Powles‘s Magnolia (Seraph Press) is the book I am currently reading. I have long been a fan, from Girls of the Drift to the glorious Luminscent). Nina’s new book is so immensely satisfying as it navigates home and not-home, identity, history, myth, the lives of women – with characteristic nimbleness, heavenly phrasing, open-heart revelations, the senses on alert, the presence of food, multiple languages. Reading bliss!
The poets and their picks
I’m a terrible book buyer. I tend to read books given to me (because I’m cheap like that) and the shopping-bag full of books my cousin, playwright, Victor Rodger, lends to me on the regular. He has the best taste! I should probably be a better reader of New Zealand poetry in particular, but I reckon I’ve got enough things to feel guilty about.
The top three on my list of books I have read this year and love:
Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)
I love the way Hinemoana uses language to make the ethereal and the mysterious. I’m happy to not immediately be able to pin down meaning; her language allows me to be suspended between what it does to me and what it means. Poems like the incantatory Aunties and Mother – which I think of as more ‘rooted’ – make me want to sit down immediately and write a poem. In fact that is exactly what I did do when I read this book. I love a book that makes me write.
An American Sunrise Joy Harjo (WW Norton & Co)
An American Sunrise is Joy Harjo’s most recent book of poetry. Joy is Poet Laureate of the United States. I love everything Joy Harjo has written. And I mean everything. She Had Some Horses (from an early book of the same name) is one of favourite poems of all time. Elise Paschen says of her, “ Joy Harjo is visionary and a truth sayer, and her expansive imagination sweeps time, interpolating history into the present.”. I would add to that she is taulaaitu, mouth-piece for the ancestors, gods and spirits. While you’re reading Joy Harjo’s poetry, read Crazy Brave, her wonderful autobiography. It will stay with you forever.
National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)
When I was looking for favourite lines in this book, I couldn’t decide, sooo many – like small poems in themselves. Mohamed speaks with an iron fist in a velvet glove. His poetry is elegant and beautiful and it tells the damn truth. Someone needs to tell the damn truth – about March 15, about being Muslim in New Zealand (and in the entire western world), about the things that happen so close to us – and inside us – that are easy (and more comfy) to avert our eyes from.
Some favourite lines from White Supremacy is a song we all know the words to but never sing out loud: ‘Please come and talk on our show tomorrow/ no don’t bring that up/…
‘This isn’t about race/ this is a time for mourning/ this is about us/ isn’t she amazing/ aren’t we all’…
‘Let us hold you and cry/ our grief into your hijabs’…
Who can tell these stories in this way but a good poet with fire in his fingers, love and pain in equal measure in his heart and feet on the battleground?
There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce Morgan Parker (Tin House)
I have to add, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker to every list I write forever. In my opinion, no reader of poetry should miss this. If it doesn’t grab you by the shoulders, the heart, the brain, the belly – you might be dead. From the epigraph: ‘The president is black/ she black’ (Kendrick Lamar). Morgan Parker is PRESIDENT.
The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (HarperCollins) edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris features translations of 20th century poets from around the world and is packed with surprises.
Amidst all the books I have enjoyed during 2020, this is the one that I have read and re-read and continue to come back to. It was first published in 2010. I have been slow in coming to the book.
When a poem in another language is re-cast into English, through the empathy and skill of a translator, it seems to unsettle notions of line, rhythmn, word choice and form. Translation pushes and tugs at the boundaries of the ‘rules’ and introduces a kind of strangeness. This strangeness I experience as an opening; a feeling of potential, slippery as a an eel to articulate. It recalibrates predetermined notions and generates excitement about what a poem can do or be.
There are well-known names here: Cavafy, Lorca, Akhmatova, Ritsos, Milosz, Symborska among others. There are also many poets previously unknown to me, and many whose work is either out of print or difficult to source. It’s a diverse, inspiring array of poetic voices and, as Kaminsky says in the introduction, puts us ‘in conversation with a global poetic tradition’.
Making discoveries is one of the great pleasures of anthologies. I now have a brand new ‘to read’ list.
When I’m reading something that inspires me, I have the urge to inhabit it somehow. I find that entering into a creative process by writing with, and around, another’s words helps me to absorb them into my internal landscape. This poem was created with snippets of some of the poetry I have met recently.
Soon, we are night sailing (Hunter, p. 71)
This is the closest you can get to it:
the void, the nothing,
the black lapping mouth of the sea
and the black arching back of the sky. (Hunter, p. 71)
One still maintains a little glimmer of hope
Deep down inside
A tiny light
About the size of a speck
Like a distant star
Is spotted on the horizon this dark night (Boochani, p. 26)
Swish swish swish
as quiet as a fish. (Ranger, p. 13)
… holy women
on the shore –
long having practiced the art
of replacing hearts
and song (Walker, p. 7)
Today you are tumbling towards her like the ocean.
… you are becoming nearer and nearer to someone other
than yourself. (Hawken, p. 49)
I have … imagined my life ending,
or simply evaporating,
by being subsumed into a tribe of blue people. (Nelson, p. 54)
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017, Picador). (Not strictly poetry, but the book feels so much like a long poem to me). Line breaks added by me.
No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (2020, Picador).
‘Autumn Leaves’ by Laura Ranger. In A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children edited by Paula Green (2014, Random House).
Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning by Alice Walker (1975, The Women’s Press).
Small Stories of Devotion by Dinah Hawken (1991, Victoria University Press).
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009, Jonathan Cape). Line breaks added by me.
Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press)
A few weeks ago, I sat in the audience at a WORD Christchurch event and watched our former poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh read a poem from Tusiata Avia’s new collection. It began as such:
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole
FUCK YOU, BITCH.
The hall fell pin silent and a heavy fog of discomfort descended from the ceiling, and I sat in the corner brimming with mischievous glee. It was a perfect moment, watching two of the country’s most celebrated poets jointly trash the country’s so-called ‘founder’ in the most spiteful way imaginable. The audience squirmed and squirmed and I grinned and grinned.
This is how Avia’s book begins, and it never lets up. As the title subtly implies with a hammer, Avia has things she wants to say, and doesn’t care how people feel about them. She delights in the spiteful, burrows down into the uncomfortable and the impolite and pulls out nuggets of painful truths with her bare hands. They are all truths that must be said bluntly and Avia drills them home.
In Massacre, Avia reflects on her youth fighting the demons of Christchurch, and asks us if our ‘this is not us’ mantra is divorced from the history carried in the land, haunted instead by the white spirits that rose to claim lives on March 15.
The book crescendos with How to be in a room full of white people, a dizzying poem that traps us in a single moment in time and forces us to witness and squirm and eventually, hopefully, understand what it is like to be the only brown body in a foreign space, in all its literal and metaphorical significance.
This has been my most cherished book this year, bringing together Tusiata Avia’s firecracker wit and her uncanny gift of conjuring worlds that feel vivid in their weight and poignancy. Abandoning all diplomacies, this is a blazing manifesto for honest and confrontational poetry that speaks with an urgency that puts me as a writer to shame, and demands more of me at once.
Jenny Lewis, Gilgamesh Retold, (Carcanet)
I love the way poetry re-visions the past, especially the deep past. I’m thinking of books like Matthew Francis’s reworking of the Welsh epic The Mabinogi and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a book that abandons the main storyline of Homer’s Iliad in favour of narrating the death scenes of minor characters, accompanied by extra helpings of extended simile. I’d always known about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I have owned for about 40 years in a yellow 1960 Penguin paperback. I’ve hardly opened it, but it’s one of some nine translations of the poem that Jenny Lewis has consulted for Gilgamesh Retold, published by Carcanet some four thousand years after the stories first circulated in oral form. (Her publisher at Carcanet, Michael Schmidt, has himself written a much admired book about the poem’s origins and afterlife)
Locally Dinah Hawken has worked with this ancient material, particularly writing about Inanna, the goddess of beauty and fertility and, sometimes, war, who is one of the major figures in the Gilgamesh cycle. Dinah’s feminist sense of the ancient stories accords with Jenny Lewis’s decision, as the blurb says, to relocate the poem “to its earlier oral roots in a Sumerian society where men and women were more equal, … [where] only women were allowed to brew beer and keep taverns, and women had their own language – emesal.”
It’s as well Inanna has such a significant role in Gilgamesh, for otherwise it would be a tale about male adventuring and bonding (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the discovery that even the greatest heroes can never overcome death. The world of Gilgamesh also gives us a Flood, which matches and in some ways outdoes the Old Testament. I love the way Jenny Lewis has retold these stories. She doesn’t try to pad them out to produce the sorts of coherence and pacing that contemporary readers and movie-goers find comfortable, while her phrasings have an unreductive clarity and a genuinely lyrical grace. The most audacious thing she has done, and has carried off brilliantly, is to use different metrical forms to reflect the ways in which a range of different custodians/retellers have voiced and revoiced the story. You admire the 21st-century poet’s craft even as she inducts you into a baffling and unfamiliar world. All stories, Gilgamesh Retold tells us, are made by many voices, and the best of them will journey on through many more.
And now I must try and summon up the courage to give the latest version of Beowulf a go!
Gregory Kan, Under Glass(Auckland University Press)
My esteemed colleague, with one hand around his Friday swill-bottle: ‘I hate poetry – no one cares, no one reads it anymore.’
Gregory Kan, with two suns infiltrating the long ride on the train to Paekākāriki, illustrates otherwise: Under Glass lulls like a really disquieting guided meditation.
After lockdown, it is the first book I read outside our ‘bubble’. Threading through an internal landscape, somehow a place I recognise. ‘Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun is eating its way out from inside me.’
Certain lines, with their mystical insistence, snag on me and come back again from time to time: ‘Everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.’ It’s as if some lines have been dreaming of themselves. The book invites a gentle inspection. A glass bead held right up against the eye. A shutter flipped open over a stark interior.
‘When you move a look moves inside me and eats there what I eat.’
Once, a kind individual in Paekākāriki, their hands busy with a teapot, told me: ‘Those who know what it is, fall on it like starving people.’
When Litcrawl comes, we make our way to some of the events. The room has sucked a crowd in. Spells for 2020, with Rebecca Hawkes, Rata Gordon, Stacey Teague, Arihia Latham, Rachel McAlpine and Miriama Gemmell (thank you for your entrancing words), reminds me of how poetry is still something people might come in search of. Visitations of bees, airline heights and morphing walls. There is a sense of relief.
A crowd still feels like a dream, and a dream still feels like the sea. Gregory writes that ‘the sea is a house made of anything. The sea is a story about anything, told by someone unfit for storytelling. More than what I can know, and much more than I can understand.’
Under Glass, which wasn’t exactly written for this year (no ordinary year), seems to slot into it.
My steamed colleague, with one hand steadying the banister: ‘I guess Bob Dylan is okay, though.’
Note: I asked my colleague’s permission for quoting him. He said he was fine with it, as long as a mob of angry poets didn’t come knocking.
2020 was the year we finally got a book from Hana Pera Aoake (A bathful of kawakawa and hot water Compound Press). I had been waiting for this for so so long. It’s a taonga that I am incredibly grateful for. Ever since I first read Hana’s work they have been one of my favourite writers. Their writing is both clever and wise, of the moment and timeless, pop culture and fine art, Aotearoa and international.
This is a book I will be returning to over and over again for inspiration, electrification, nourishment, and comfort. I would recommend it to anyone.
Other poetry books I read and loved this year: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, The Book of Frank by CA Conrad, hoki mai by Stacey Teague, Hello by Crispin Best, and Head Girl by Freya Daly Sadgrove.
Nina Mingya Powles
For most of this year I could only read things in fragments. I could only hold on to small parts of poems, essays, short stories in my head before they floated away. This year I sought out poetry by Indigenous writers. Of these two books, the first I read slowly, dipping in and out like testing the surface of cool water. The other I read hungrily all at once.
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Graywold Press) reminded me why I write poetry, at a time when writing anything at all felt impossible. Diaz’s heavy, melodic love poems circled around my head for days: “My lover comes to me like darkfall – long, / and through my open window.” But it is her writing about water and the body that changed me. In this book, water is always in motion, a current that passes through time, memory and history. Her long poem “The First Water of the Body” is a history of the Colorado River, a sacred river: “I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving with me right now.”
A bathful of kawakawa and hot water by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press) came to me when I needed it most, nourishing me and warming me. I haven’t yet held a copy of the book, but I read it on my laptop over two days and have carried parts of it around in my body ever since: “I speak broken French and Português into the broken yellow gloaming.” A bathful of kawakawa and hot water is a searing, lyrical work of poetry, memoir, and political and cultural commentary. Like the title suggests, it was a balm for me, but also a reminder of the ongoing fight for our collective dream of a better world, and most importantly, that “racism is not just a product of psychological malice, but a product of capitalism.”
In 2020 Poetry Shelf will host a monthly, theme-based festival of poems.
First up: trees. I chose trees because I live in a clearing in the midst of protected regenerating bush. It is a place of beauty and calm, no matter the wild West Coast weather. We look out onto the tail end of the Waitātakere Ranges knowing we work together as guardians of this land.
I chose trees because like so many other people the need to care for trees is strong – to see the fire-ravaged scenes in Australia is heartbreaking.
I love coming across trees in poems – I love the way they put down roots and anchor a poem in anecdote, life pulse, secrets, the sensual feast of bush and forests, political layers.
I could plot my life through the books I have read and loved, but I could also plot my life through my attachment to trees.
Let me Put in a Word for Trees
Let me put in a word for breathing.
Let me put in a word for trees.
Let me put in a word for breathing.
from Water, Leaves, Stones (Victoria University Press, 1995)
After a long hard decade, Miranda asks for a poem about feijoas
Small hard green breasts budding on a young tree
that doesn’t want them, can’t think how to dance
if it has to put up with these;
yet over summer the fruits swell and plump:
frog barrel bodies without the jump or croak
limes in thick velvet opera coats
love grenades to throw like flirt bombs
for your crush to catch and softly clutch
before they release their sweet seductions
and when the congregation and the choir
in the Tongan church next door exalt in hymns
while their brass band soars and sforzandos in,
a fresh feijoa crop tumbles to the grass
as if the tree’s just flung down its bugle mutes
in a mid-life, high-kick, survival hallelujah.
Once, I climbed a tree
too tall for climbing
and threw my voice out
into the world. I screamed.
I hollered. I snapped
innocent branches. I took the view
as a vivid but painful truth gifted
to me, but did not think to lay down
my own sight in recompense.
All I wanted was someone to say
they could hear me, but the tree said
that in order to be heard I must
first let silence do the heavy lifting
and clear my mind of any
questions and anxieties
such as contemplating whether
I am the favourite son. If I am not,
I am open to being a favourite uncle
or an ex-lover whose hands still cover
the former half’s eyes. I’ll probably never
have children of my own to disappoint
so I’ll settle for being famous instead
with my mouth forced open on TV like
a Venus fly-trap lip-synching for its life.
The first and the last of everything
are always connected by
the dotted line of choice.
If there is an order to such things,
then surely I should resist it.
from He’s so MASC (Auckland University Press, 2018)
Woman running across a field
with a baby in her arms . . .
She was once the last pine tree on Mars.
My mother as a tree
I like to think my mother may have been a tree
like Fred’s, the oak whose Elizabethan
damask skirts each year spring-clean
the hillside opposite, in front of the house
where Fred was born. Her royal foliage
clothes a peasant’s weathered fingers,
the same unfussed embrace.
Fred never sees her now,
he’s in a rest-home up the coast
and doesn’t get out much
and so, in lieu, she fosters me
from unconditional dawn
to dusk and through the night,
her feet in earth, her head
in air, water in the veins, and what
transpires between us is the breath
of life. In the morning birds
fly out of her hair, in the evening
they are her singing brain
that sings to me. My mother as a tree:
my house, my spouse, my dress
and nakedness, my birth, my death,
before and afterwards. I like
to think my tears may be her
watershed, not just for me.
from Beside Herself (Auckland University Press, 2016)
It’s the close of another year.
Stunned, I walk through the Gardens
feel them draw the numbness out of me.
This is another ‘I do this, I do that’ poem
I learnt in New York from O’Hara.
This is a New York poem set in a garden
styled in colonial civics on an island
that is not Manhattan.
I hurry to the hydrangea garden,
their shaded, moon-coloured faces
so much like my own. As a child I was posed
next to hydrangeas because the ones
next to an unremembered house
were particularly blue—
to match my eyes, presumably.
There are no hydrangeas in New York City.
I rush past the Australia garden but I stop
dead at the old aloes, their heavy leaves
so whale-like, gently swaying flukes
thick and fleshy, closing up the sky.
Some kids have carved their
initials and hearts in the smooth rind,
a hundred years against this forgotten afternoon.
I bend to the ground and sit as if to guard them
in the darkening sun.
The spread of rot constellates out of the kids’ marks
as if to say
look at the consequences,
look at me dying.
from Night As Day (Victoria University Press, 2019)
I Buried the Blood and Planted a Tree
Love is the thing that comes
when we suck on a teat and are fed.
Love is the food we can eat.
The food we can’t eat we give
to the ground
to the next day.
We pat the earth
like it is our own abdomen.
If I could have drunk a hot enough tea
to boil it out
I might have.
If I could have stood
on a big red button
and jumped once
to tell it to exit
like the highest note on the piano.
It was a sound I couldn’t feed.
I gave it to tomorrow.
I buried the blood and planted a tree
so she, unable to be fed, could feed.
The sepia sky is not one for forgetting. Even fragmented, looking up at it from beneath a canopy. The flash of light through leaves more twitch than twinkle. Therapists and yoga teachers say It’s important to let yourself to be held by mother earth, to let yourself be. I used to feel relief in the arms of a tree, but now I feel unease. Is it my own chest trembling or the trees? Oxygen spinning from the leaves, boughs holding birds who were once such a chorus they almost drove Cook’s crew back to sea. Invisible roots bearing the weight of me, through the deep dark, where trees talk in voices I am too brief to hear.
Place is bottled lightning in a shop,
or in a chandelier’s glass tear-drop,
or in a glow-worm’s low watt grot,
or in street neon’s glottal stop —
wow-eh? wow-eh? wow-eh?
Place is the moulded face of a hill,
or lichen like beard on a window sill,
or the bare spaces that shadows fill,
or ancestors growing old and ill,
or descendants at the reading of a will,
who frown and examine their fingernails
before plunging off down the paper trails
of diary and letter and overdue bill.
Place is the home of family trees —
family trees to wrap round plots of soil,
tree roots to shrivel into umbilical cords,
tree branches to spill bones and skulls;
but even trees are just a spidery scrawl
against the shelf-life of a mountain wall.
Place is a brood perched on power-poles:
bellbirds with shadows of gargoyles,
korimako who clutch the power of one,
like an egg, to trill their familiar song.
Place is grandsons who sprawl
in the family tree with laughter;
place is the tree windfall,
gathered up in the lap of a daughter.
from Rhyming Planet (Steele Roberts, 2001)
Te Mahuta Ngahere
the father of the forest
a livid monster among saplings.
A swollen aneurism grips his bole.
Below bearded epiphytes
a suppurating canker swarms with wasps.
the tuis in his crazy, dreadlocked crown
pretend to be bulldozers.
from ‘Letter to Peter McLeavey – after Basho’, from Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Last night I sat outside and looked at the moon. Up there, like it has been since the dawn of time.
Same one the cavemen looked at.
I know, scientifically, about the forces that hold it in place.
And suddenly I felt I knew too much.
The grass had been cut, while flowering.
The flowers were still there, they’d either sunk below the blades or reflowered.
I noticed grass flowers look like kowhai post-flowering. When the stamens hang long and white after the flower has fallen away.
The night was still. Cones on the street let me know men would come the next day in matching orange tunics and I should not park there.
The moon was still there.
The stillness and the quiet was misleading.
Everything had a perfect and terrible design that didn’t need me to know it.
I know the trees above the mangroves are called macrocarpas, some bird calls sweetly from the macrocarpa as the sun sets every evening. Orange, purple and pink from the verandah of my flat.
I don’t ever want to know that bird’s name.
Song from the fallen tree which served as a twelve year old’s altar to the wild gods
i am a hundred years more girleen since before you were a seed
i fell to mouldering in this darkleaf cathedral where you come
to bury the bones of brief chittering things and burn candles
in roothollows ah you young girleen life all aflickering past short
i am all your church and ever the altar at which you girleen kneel
i all goldenarched around by sunbeam and sapling green
with my many rings i share with you rootlessness and in winter
you brush away my cloak of snow humming your warmblood
girleen beatsong to soften my ache of frost
while you ask knowing of what time is to the forest and you sing
up your low girleen voice to the horned and feathered kind which
do not walk the rustling hymn of season same as we all
then twice up here you come bringing anothergirl girleen
you open your arms to the sky saying this is your heart and
home yes this the forest that sings you by name and girleen
it is true we the trees know you but you never learned from us
the songs called shyness and slowly and the next time girleen you
bring your brighthaired friend you kiss her in the pricklebelly
shadow of the holly
where i feel you like a seed unhusked shiversway as she
branchsnap slams whipslap runs so when again you dewyoung
girleen come to me you come alone
ungrowing girleen and withering back your shoots as you
bitterbrittle freeze your sapling blood into something thinner
than lancewood leaf
which cracks you through to the heartwood solvent veinsap
dizzily diluting girleen you can barely make your mountainwalk
up to me
until for two snowmelts you do not return but even once your
starved arterial taproot has begun sucking in again greedy sunlight
and sugar to colour your suppling girleen bark back alive
you have disremembered every prayersong taught you by we the
trees and i rot in the forest you called your heart and girleen
you do not visit
Sitting on the warm steps with you
our legs and backs supported by timber
looking down to the still trunk of the gum-tree
we are neither inside ourselves
as in the dark wing of a house
nor outside ourselves, like sentries
at the iron gates – we are living
on the entire contour of our skins,
on the threshold, willing to settle
or leap into anywhere.
Here’s to this tree we are standing in.
Here’s to its blue-green shelter,
its soft bark,
the handy horizontal branch
we have our feet on
and the one supporting our shoulders.
from Water, Leaves, Stones (Victoria University Press, 1995)
Nikki-Lee Birdsey was born in Piha. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a BA from New York University. She has been published widely in the US, UK, Canada, and New Zealand, and she is currently a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her first book Night as Day was published by VUP in 2019.
David Eggleton’s most recent poetry publication, Edgeland and other poems, was published by Otago University Press in 2018. He is the New Zealand Poet Laureate 2019 – 2021.
Dinah Hawken was born in Hawera in 1943 and now lives in Paekakariki. Her eighth collection of poetry, There is no harbour, was published by Victoria University Press in 2019.
Rebecca Hawkes is an erstwhile painter-poet and accidental corporate-ladder-ascender. Her chapbook Softcore coldsores was launched in AUP New Poets 5 in 2019 and she performs with the poetry troupe Show Ponies. She wrote this tree poem in her previous occupation as a teen and hopes it will survive repotting after all these years.
Maeve Hughes lives in a tall house in Wellington. She has studied Fine Arts and Creative Writing. Her first publication Horsepower won the 2018 Story Inc Prize for poetry and was launched in October last year.
Simone Kaho is a New Zealand / Tongan poet and a graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters. She published her debut poetry collection, Lucky Punch, in 2016. Simone is noted for her poetry performance and writes for E-Tangata.co.nz.
Bill Manhire’s new book of poems will be published later this year. It might well be called Wow because he is so surprised by it.
Emma Neale is the author of 6 novels and 6 collections of poetry. She is the current editor of Landfall.
Chris Price is the author of three books of poetry and the hybrid ‘biographical dictionary’ Brief Lives. She convenes the poetry and creative nonfiction MA workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. In May 2019 she and her guitarist partner Robbie Duncan will be among the guests at Featherston Booktown.
Chris Tse is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC. He is a regular contributor to Capital Magazine’s Re-Verse column and a book reviewer on Radio New Zealand. Chris is currently co-editing an anthology of LGBTQIA+ Aotearoa New Zealand writers.
Ian Wedde’sSelected Poems were published in 2017 – Te Mahuta Ngahere can be found there and we hope will survive in the bush. Wedde’s historical novel, The Reed Warbler, will be published by Victoria University Press in May, and a collection of essays 2014-2019 is in development.
Dinah Hawken’s eighth poetry collection, There is no harbour (Victoria University Press, 2019), presents three entwined Taranaki strands. The first comprises her family history during the years of early Pākehā settlement, the second a brief history of the Taranaki wars and the third reveals her thoughts and feelings as she researched and wrote her long poem. Dinah always gifts her poetry with musicality, breathing room, heart and contemplation. This new book is no exception. It is an addictive mix that inspires me as both reader and writer.
In her brief frontnote Dinah writes:
The completion of the poem has not lead me to any sense of resolution. It has led to something less measurable, perhaps more valuable—greater clarity, particularly of the depth of injustice Māori have endured in Taranaki. At the same time it has strengthened my attachment and my gratitude to my great and great-great grandparents, whom I know as essentially good people. And it has led me back to Parihaka: to profound respect for Te Whiti and Tohu, the art of leadership, the art of passive resistance, and their refusal of human war.
Dinah brings together family voices, anecdotes, settings, facts and musings to re-present history in poetic form—history that was hidden, manipulated and muted in the past. She stands as a Pākehā in multiple places, searching for other points of view, other ways of seeing and feeling. I am looking through her poem view-finder and the effect is significant. I am mourning the arrogance and the atrocities, I am celebrating the courage.
fired his tūpara in the air
in front of 600 people
threw it down at his feet
and kicked it.
The evil weapon, he said,
which has caused so much mischief and ill-will
and been loaded with the blood of men,
should never hereafter
be taken up again.
from ‘1867, “The Year of the Daughters”‘
As a poet Dinah utilises economy on the line to build richness above, between and beyond. That plainness of talking makes the impact even stronger, deeper, wider.
Wherever you looked at it from,
whoever lived inside it,
a whare was a welcome shelter.
One in which a family could sleep,
in which a child could be born.
It was the kind of house
that could easily
go up in smoke. And it did.
from ‘Oswald, from his notebook’
How to imagine the past? How to imagine the cruel past? How to imagine the day and its sheen of sun on the leaves? How to imagine both sides of an unforgivable war? How to imagine how to proceed in your Pākehā skin with your Taranaki family tree and the ancestral tree in Britain? This is what Dinah does as she creates her chain of connections towards the present and back into the past.
Individual lines stand out and they feel like entrances into the stories I /we need to hear:
‘I am the beneficiary of injustice.’
In one poem the voices of Robin Hyde, Virginia Woolf, J. C. Sturm and Te Whiti sit side by side.
In 1940 Virginia Woolf said:
Unless we can think peace into existence
we—not this one body
but millions of bodies yet to be born—
will lie in the same darkness and hear
the same death rattle overhead
from ‘Found Poetry’
I adore this book, this contemplative, self-vulnerable exploration that faces a past that makes me feel shame, but that offers empathetic heart-lines out in the open. I can’t take it all in, in my first reading. I have read it again, and then again. There is no harbour is a vital reminder to bring our stories into the open and to keep finding ways to build peace in our homes and our villages and our cities. And our hearts. I want you to read it and find your own connections, your own lines to treasure, because this is a poetry book that matters so very very much.
Dinah Hawkin’s Small Stories of Devotion was the first collection of contemporary NZ poems that had a big impact on me as a young woman. The collection was published the year I went flatting for the first time. My flatmate had a copy, and I was attracted to this beautiful small blue book and it’s pocket-sized format. I hadn’t been exposed to much contemporary poetry, and it was a revelation to find work that spoke to me so directly. ‘Her Body’ is all tangled up with that time in my life where I was emerging and coming into myself as an adult. A time when I was encountering lots of new ideas about how to live, how to be in myself and in my body. This poem in particular spoke to those themes, as well as being a gateway into the world of NZ poetry. Now I read it and appreciate a layer of memory folded into its mix including a fondness for that younger woman and her questioning self. I love the poem’s rhythm, the place of the poem playing itself out, that long beach, those sandhills, the island and its two clouds. It surges and retreats, echoing the waves and the words lapping up the beach and across the page.
I enjoyed its anger (“accumulating & accumulating”), its passion and release. I was spending a lot of time myself walking on beaches while having big existential conversations with my new friends about the world we wanted to live in, and about our sexuality and gender politics in particular. ‘Her Body’ encapsulated that exploration and the feminism that was so often at the heart of our conversations. I was she, the powerful sensual voice of the poem, the woman abandoning herself into her body. And alongside all that, entwined, the natural world, informing everything, settling on everything. A potent combination and one I’ve continued to enjoy in Dinah’s work.
Nicola Strawbridge is Programme Director of the Going West Books & Writers Festival.
Dinah Hawken is a poet who lives in Paekakariki on the Kapiti Coast. Her seventh collection of poems, Ocean and Stone, was published by Victoria University Press in 2015.
Jenny Bornholdt is one of my favourite New Zealand poets, so a new Selected Poems is an occasion worth marking. Her poetry traverses decades; her poems never lose sight of the world at hand, are unafraid of the personal or little ripples of strangeness, and underscore a mind both roving and attentive. There is an ease of writing that might belie slow craft but Jenny’s poetry is exquisitely shaped from line to form. Returning to the early poems, I was taken once again by their enduring freshness. A lightness of touch, honeyed lines. As poet, Jenny harvests little patches of the world and transforms them into poems. Patches that might be ordinary or everyday, offbeat or linked to feeling something – patches that stall me as reader. I love that. When I read the poems, I get access to a glorious poetry flow yet there are these luminous pauses. If I were writing an essay, it might explore the poetics of pause and currents.
When I was editing Dear Heart, I pictured a little chapbook of Jenny Bornholdt love poems because she has written some of my favourites whether for husband, father or child (‘A love poem has very long sentences,’ ‘Poem,’ ‘Pastoral,’ ‘Mrs Winter’s Jump,’ ‘The inner life’ ‘Full Moon’ for starters).
To have this new book is a gift. Thanks Jenny for the interview.
Selected Poems Jenny Bornholdt, Victoria University Press, 2016
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?
Yes, I think it did. I was one of those kids who read a lot – anything that was going. I loved the Readers Digest. My mother took us to the library every week and I got out four books, which was the limit then. I also spent a lot of time outside – we had kids our age next door and over the road and we spent most of our time with them.
When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to?
I didn’t write any poems til I was about 18. I read a lot of novels and if I thought about being any kind of writer it’d would’ve been a novelist, or journalist, which is the direction I headed in. I’d read some of the Mersey poets when I was younger and I remember liking Roger McGough’s casual, ‘talky’ style.
Did university life transform your poetry writing? New discoveries or directions?
University was where I discovered poetry. I really had no idea about anything before I went there. Everything was exciting – from Middle English to contemporary American poetry. And I did the ‘Original Composition’ course, which changed everything.
‘So careless the trees—
having remembered their leaves
they forget them again
so they fall on us, big
from ‘ Autumn’
Your poetry reflects a quiet absorption of the world that surprises, moves and astonishes. Sometimes it feels as though you tilt the world slightly for us to see. What are key things for you when you write a poem?
Each poem is different, but there’s always a feeling, a kind of charge, when a poem is making itself known. It’s a matter of trusting yourself and following the direction of the poem.
Reading your new Selected Poems sent me back to the original collections with admiration and delight. It is fascinating reading across the arc of decades—gathering echoes, favoured motifs, shifting melodies. Do you think your poetry has changed over time? Did you spot points of return such as leaves, the garden, or baking?
There are many points of return. One thing that surprised me was the number of tea towels in my poems.
It was really interesting making the selection for this book – there seemed to be such a strong sense of continuity. I can see changes, though, and that’s good. I think I’m writing better poems – they seem stronger to me. Over time I think I’ve let myself get a bit weirder.
Ha! I love the idea of tea towels. I never spotted them. I think I need to send you a poetry tea towel to celebrate. I am always drawn to the conversational tone that is both of the everyday and rises beyond it in your poems. How do you see your poems working as conversation?
They’re probably a conversation with myself. Me saying things out loud to see what happens.
Some of your most moving poems document illness. Do you think illness made your writing life more difficult or did writing give you solace and energy? Or something altogether different?
Illness definitely made my writing life difficult. I was out of action for a year with bad hip pain and didn’t write anything. I could barely get out of bed. Then, after surgery, I spent a year recovering and during that time my writing life began to surface and I found enormous solace in it. Writing gave me a way of processing what had happened – of making it into something else. It was like turning the awfulness around and sending it off in another direction.
‘For six weeks now I’ve been outside of weather
and of reading. Outside of myself.’
from ‘Along way from home’
The result for the reader is a cluster of poems that draw you into that experience of illness, then lead you in so many other directions. You have never been afraid of a longer poem, of longer lines and and a slow unfolding of subject matter like a storyteller holding a listener in the delicious grip of attention. Do you have one that particularly resonates for you?
I love all the poems in The Rocky Shore. You’re probably not meant to say that about your own work, but there you are. Those poems resonate because they’re so much about my life and what’s important in it. Those poems really found their form.
I love the Rocky Shore too. I agree they have found just the right form and within that form a perfect alchemy of ingredients. It is on my shelf of classic NZ poetry books. When you were putting the selection together was there an older poem that surprised you – like coming across a long-lost friend?
I was surprised by ‘Waiting Shelter.’ I think that one’s still got something.
‘How you remember people. To remember
them as well as they remember you.
To remember them with abandon. To
abandon remembering them. Which is
better? or worse? Rooms and rooms
and always people moving in
and out of them. Love,
love, a knock on the door. A
heart murmur to remember you by.’
from ‘Waiting shelter’
What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have affected you as a writer.
I’ve read and re-read Mary Ruefle’s book of essays Madness, Rack, and Honey – it makes me want to write. I find prose writers often affect me strongly – I’ve just read by Elizabeth Strout, for the third time this year. It’s one of the most affecting books I’ve ever read. Alice Oswald’s new book of poems Falling Awake is a marvellous, strange thing.
What New Zealand poets have you been drawn to over time?
Dinah Hawken, Bill Manhire, Andrew Johnston, James Brown, Mary Ursula Bethell, Geoff Cochrane.
Michele Leggott has talked about a matrix of early women poets in New Zealand who supported each other. Have you sustained a vital conversation with poet friends on your own work and on the whole business of writing poetry?
Greg (O’Brien) and I talk about poetry a lot – it helps to live with someone who does the same thing you do. And I often talk to friends (some of them writers) about writing and reading. It’s so much a part of my life that I can’t imagine not talking about it.
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 think it’s more that there are conventions and, as in any art form, these can be done away with as long as what happens ‘works’. Poems are strange things – they have their own logic and find their own forms.
‘This poem was always going to end there, with Frankie
and the toast. That image has been the engine
of the poem, but then
from ‘Big minty nose’
The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?
Most things, except doing my tax return.
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?
On Joan Fleming: Failure makes lemonade; slams one door only to shake others open – sometimes. Failure has a knack of forcing its protagonist down substitute alleyways, leaving one to navigate unorthodox routes in pitch black. Joan Fleming’s latest collection, Failed Love Poems, is about Love, but more so, it is about a lengthy, howling procession of Loves gone kaput. There is love clinging on by tooth-strings, love in absentia, love as apology, love treading on eggshells, love cemented in verse, and love that ebbs in spite of itself.
Like so many poets, I loathe people making speeches about me or my work. Much better to stage a poetry reading and celebrate the pull of cities.
My new poetry collection comes out of ten exceptional days I spent in New York with my family awhile ago. So I have invited a bunch of poets I love to read city poems by themselves and others. Big line-ups but it will free flow and leave time for wine and nibbles.
Once I got to fifteen I realised what poetry wealth we have in these places. I could have hosted another 15 in each place easily. That was so reassuring.
If I had time and money, I would have staged similar events in Christchurch and Dunedin where there bundles of poets I love too.
Wordsongs, St Peters Hall, Paekākāriki, 3rd March 2016
I go partly because there’s like a major poetry type gig in Paekākāriki and I’m a Paekākāriki poet and it feels a bit rude not to go. Imagine, I think, if there’s only six people there without me and they decide never to have anything poetry related in our village ever again. Yes, we call it a village and I needn’t have worried. Having scoffed down as much of a delicious fried-rice concoction as I possibly could in 94 seconds I arrive three minutes late and take the Very Last Seat. It’s an actual excited crowd, in carefully arranged tiers. They’ve turned St Peters Hall around so we face the direction of the sea and one long side of the hall with its cool house-shaped wooden-window shutter things. The huge red velvet curtain hangs over the stage to our left and the doors to the village main street to our right.
I love this hall but truthfully, I’m a bit wary of poetry set to music. It’s the puritanical killjoy in me which says, honey, you need to decide, music or poetry. Just get away with your weird, not very interesting bongo drumming interspersed with a man saying two words usually something like organic tomatoes in a quiet yet loud, yet well modulated, yet with working-class-solidarity voice and then pausing a full minute while making eye contact with every member of the audience before saying wet. But I know it’s kind of prudish of me and I need to open myself to new experiences so I am willing and here and listening.
Local poet, Dinah Hawken, who starts us off, makes me feel very comfortable. She reads her poetry sans music, the way it should be (sorry) and she starts with a good long poem about environmental catastrophe. The poem earns its length and I enjoy Hawken’s meditative delivery. She reads slowly and thoughtfully and the poem turns from lament to challenge to conversation. I feel like I’m hearing more and more poetry like this, laced with planet grief and helplessness and wonder. I’m glad it’s being written.
The main act is Bill Manhire with singer Hannah Griffen, pianist Norman Meehan and Hayden Chisholm on saxophone and clarinet. To begin with I think Chisholm is tuning up, his sax is breathy and rough and understated and there’s no clear strong notes but then I realise this is part of it all. He’s throat clearing and then the other clear notes come, but through the set I see this replication of human noises, and also the absorbing of other sounds and instruments. I hear reverb and the plucking of a guitar, slow growling, didgeridoo and the noise of traffic all through his instruments.
In this first song, an interpretation of Baxter’s High Country Weather, the piano and singing come in beside the brass and I’m startled by how much action, how much sound can be produced by just three people. Griffin’s voice is like some really good jazz club singer. I get that vibe through the night. I want to be sitting at a small lamped table having intimate conversations. She sings big, beautiful and clear, high and low. Next Bill, congenial and with charming anecdotes that thrill the poetry nerd in me, reads Rain by Hone Tuwhare and then the three musicians play it back to us. I get it now. I can listen to the poems read as poems, and listen to the music as music. No bongo drums. No organic tomatoes and soulful stares. It’s a relief. And when I hear Rain sung I’m struck by how lineation changes with the music, the words become split and lumped in different way. We can hear hidden rhymes and rhythms which may be a subtle backbone to verse on the page but in music are drawn out and played with. Cool.
Meehan tells us the set is pretty much the album Small holes in the silence, featuring versions of Manhire and other poets’ work as songs. We hear interpretations of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Manhire, David Mitchell, and my favourite piece, two poems by Eileen Duggan. I can’t actually hear the words as Griffin sings so perfectly in tune with the sax, so my liking this all the same proves how thoroughly mature I’ve become about the whole poetry and music mash up. What I love in this song is the way the sax more than ever takes the role of a voice; for a moment the sax and the singer are a duet and in a kind of heady triumph. After that the two seem to swap places; Griffin no longer singing words but sounds become another instrument and the saxophone becomes a human voice. It’s a meandering interesting work. I also love Manhire’s stories about and poem for Cornish poet Charles Causley. The evening ended with a spoken and then musical interpretation of Manhire’s rhyming list poem ‘1950s.’ The crowd loved it, they threw flowers, they cheered, they stomped. Well, they didn’t but I’m sure if they thought of it they would have. They applauded long and hard. I wander out into the Paekākāriki night. Now the traffic sounds like a saxophone. The crossing signals go off. A train, windows bright, rumbles past us on its way to Waikanae. I wave.