Tag Archives: Harry Ricketts

Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand – a vibrant, heart-boosting, head -juddering collection




‘To investigate something properly we need all three: archives, dreams, memories …”

Martin Edmond


Extraordinary Anywhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand (VUP, 2016), edited by Ingrid Horrocks and Cherie Lacey, is a collection to linger over. That the essays are in debt to the personal heightens the effect on the reader because place matters to all of us. One reviewer suggested that New Zealanders are obsessed with place to an unusual degree. I find that hard to believe. We may all have different relations with place whether shaped by cultural, familial or historical factors. We may talk about place in different ways and how it shapes who we are as both as individuals and nations. But place matters.

What I love about this vibrant, heart-boosting, head-juddering collection is that it heads off in a thousand directions—both in view of what is said and how it is said. The recent (and not so recent trend) to filter scholarly thinking through the personal tethers abstract thought to the gritty real world we inhabit on a daily basis, and intellectual thought is all the better for it (although the sublime joy of following abstract argument is still an appealing option).

I love the feel of the book in my hand, the shape and internal design.


Ashleigh Young’s opening essay, ‘The Te Kuiti Underground’ revisits a place from her past and it is like refreshing a home page in your head. When she was young, Ashleigh thought, despite her father’s forensic knowledge, that this home place was vacant. The essay opens on a gravel road with a view of paddocks, a sewage pond and the airport. Ashleigh bumps into Paul McCartney, a mutable figure who morphed into George and then later Beck. This warm, wry account of teenage yearnings and adult returns finds effervescent detail to make the threads between home, place and people glow. Yes, the writing is lucid, and that is a certain kind of glow, but the essay delivers such an open and moving insight into familial roots, I got a readerly glow. And that’s gold, if you will forgive the pun.

Other writers take different tacks. Sally Blundell uses quotes from children’s books and characters (Alice, AA Milne, Dr Seuss, the Mock Turtle, Where the Wild Things Are) to structure a moving account of the revival of Christchurch, post-earthquakes: ‘There should be a place where only things you want to happen, happen’ (Sendak). Place and space are questioned and are participants in processes, proposals and discussions that both disconnect and connect the city. This essay is an essential reminder that this place is rebuilding and the grassroots activity is extraordinary. The gap between blueprints and the people is equally so.

Lydia Wevers approaches the Brancepeth Library archives through dirt (they arrived at Victoria University Library in a filthy state!). Much to think about. That image sent me reeling upon the purity of the archives and our relationship with what we read. Lydia sees the drive to find ‘original archival truth’ as somewhat deluded (she borrows this notion), but underlines the way the archival dirt of the Brancepeth collection established a flash of overlap between past and present. This essay was compulsive reading with my current status as researcher. I loved her admissions. This is the final sentence: ‘At some points of recognition, it would be untruthful to remove yourself from the narrative you are trying to make.’

Ingrid Horrocks goes out walking with Creative Writing students on campus and near campus  as part of a research project set up by Massey University ‘in response to a perceived “thinness” of place within the 21st-century multi-campus university.’ The project asks ‘how experience in a particular place might be “thickened” by making connections to that place’s contested histories, its topographies, its inhabitants and uses, its origins.’ Fascinating.

Cherie Lacey was a discovery and I can’t wait to read her memoir (of a failed psychoanalysis). She takes us to reclaimed land behind her dad’s place in Napier. She had been studying psychoanalysis in Melbourne and felt a real aversion to key underpinnings. Chiefly, that ‘we are not the authors of our own texts.’ She ached to be poet rather than poem. The essay, in the spirit of what essays ought to do, puts things on the line in a risky way:

‘This text-that-was-not-my-own didn’t work when it was overlaid on this place. It demanded a different story be made, one that included dog’s brains and a taniwha and a buried lagoon, an earthquake, shards of ceramic and the complicated life of a family.’

Glorious!  ‘This place only exists for me, as me.’


Alex Calder stayed in a small Southland lodge, miles from anywhere. He wanted to work on a piece on classic new Zealand fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. Harry Ricketts, having lived in numerous places, admits he doesn’t have a standing place of his own. He has imaginary places (borrowed from Rushdie) and reminds us of the ‘here’ hidden in elsewhere. Lynn Jenner places two texts side by side, in pieces, with dialogue and sideways tracks, in  a way that feels like poetry, uncertain, drawing on the past, with a taniwha hovering. This: ‘I think the place and time of one’s birth act like anchovies in a sauce; not discernible as themselves but present as a salty essence, deep and influential.’

For Alice Te Punga Somerville, place ‘folds and unfolds dynamically.’ The essay is both personal and political as it keenly draws close to the names of places, and then to Māori writers, not just where they come from but where they have gone. This essay is essential in the way it mourns the lack of visibility of Māori writers in all our media and publishing platforms.

Annabel Cooper looks at childhood haunts and lives that lived and loved them: ‘In all these lives, places were “passings that haunted” leaving their imprints in the adults who were one children there.’ Annabel makes the vital point that places are impermanent yet conversely act as anchors.

Tina Makereti responds to the insistent question: ‘Where do you come from?’ Tina cannot give ‘a direct or simple answer’ to the query so the essay, in its pathways through, is fascinating, moving, vital. She returns to a place where her tupuna are. ‘I can’t remember who said it first. We could live here. We should live here. Look at the hills. Look at the sea.’


I haven’t finished the book. I have still to read Giovanni Tiso, Martin Edmond, Ian Wedde, Jack Ross, Tim Corballis and Tony Ballantyne. Ha! Looks like I picked out all the women first reflecting my current focus on women’s writing.

This is a terrific collection of essays and I cannot recommend it highly enough. An absolutely productive reading experience for me. Bravo Victoria University Press for publishing it.

My two poetry readings to launch my new book feature some of my favourite poets

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.

Please share if you have the inclination.

And you are ALL warmly invited!








Reading Sport 44 on a wet Sunday keeps the blues away

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The new edition of Sport includes 8 essays along with the usual spread of poetry and fiction. At the start of the book is an impressive advertisement for Victoria University Press’s forthcoming publications. This Press is a consistent and exemplary supporter of New Zealand writing whether poetry, fiction or non-fiction.


Why I am singing VUP’s praises:

There are 15 poetry collections in the offing (okay some might not appear until next year, but still!). We are going to see books by Tusiata Avia and Hera Lindsay Bird over the next few months.

Sarah Laing‘s new book is out in October (Mansfield and me: A Graphic Memoir).

There are 4 works of fiction (Catherine Chidgey has a new novel out in November!)

And I am looking forward to the collection of essays Ingrid Horrocks co-edited having tasted some in Ruapehu and Ashleigh Young‘s essays (November).


Sport 44

some preliminary highlights:

Usually, I read all the poems first but this time I was in the mood for a bite of fiction so I dove straight into Kirsten McDougall‘s ‘A Visitation.’ The story responds to the collapse of the internet and the arrival of Clarice Lispector to make a batch of eggs to tempt an indifferent palate. I adored this story so much it made me want to take up writing short fiction. It is sweet writing; warm, witty, funny, thoughtful, polemical. I do hope there is a new collection in the pipelines. I read this on a plane with two hours sleep and it was such an uplift. ‘I saw anew the detritus in the house I had allowed to build up like a plaque to the heart.’

The journal always puts in me in touch with writers I am unfamiliar with. This time a glorious suite by Oscar Upperton: ‘The ship is a sort of dark undoing.’

And Philip Armstrong‘s utterly inventive narrative, ‘Life of Clay,’ which keeps you on your toes as you read: ‘I can tell you it began with nothing/ but the wide white bare and empty endless plain/ but there was something there already there.’

I have already posted some of Rachel Bush‘s poems here.  Movingly, achingly beautiful. Written when life has fingertips against death.

Jenny Bornholdt‘s exquisite haiku: ‘It is eight degrees/and the Thorndon outdoor pool/ is swimming with leaves.’

Ashleigh Young‘s ‘Process’ which is sad and happy and a little bit witty and a little bit true: ‘On this day our city is a perfect haircut, its losses gently layered/ and what is left, falling gracefully.’ Oh word shivers!

Tusiata Avia‘s ‘Gaza’ which brings heart and politics together and rips your easy Sunday slumbering with poetic teeth: ‘I cannot write a poem about Gaza because I cannot eat a whole desert.’

The stillness, the extraordinary image, the enigmatic bridge between title and poem in Louise Wallace‘s ‘The body began to balance itself’. You just have to read the whole thing!

Hannah Mettner‘s ‘The day Amy died’ that takes a moment that pricks with sharp detail and pricks even deeper when the moment is declared and time and noise go haywire.

Maria McMillan‘s ‘The Ski Flier’ is a whoosh of a poem that sucks you up into story and music and is so evocative: ‘And/ there is a moment when they pass,/ the snow and the ski flier,/ each taking on the character of the other.’

Harry Rickett‘s ’14A Esmonde Road’ exudes the mood of place, that historic property where Janet and Frank lived; and you can just feel the phantoms stalking the poem until you get to the perfect ending.

The first poem, ‘Falseweed,’ is by Bill Manhire and was published as a little pamphlet by Egg Box Publishing in Norwich. It has a different feel to some of Bill’s recent poems. The words are scattered like seeds on the expanse of white page. Or pebbles. But I like the idea of seed as they are so fertile. I can see the roots and buds bursting out. There is linguistic inventiveness that boosts both music and image, particularly in compound words:

leafcandle  pencilheart  wintertwig  scribblegrass  anchorwhite  tongue-true.

I felt like I was following a dandelion kiss and pausing to see where it landed. The poem is about childhood and writing and a mind floating, roaming. Words floating, roaming. It is beautiful and mesmerising: ‘I began to recall/ how the words came knocking.’ ‘Oh pencilheart –/ oh smudge of lead.’


And still much to read; more poems, more fiction and the bundle of essays. This is a terrific issue.

The VUP ad:






Why I loved the Ruapehu Writers Festival


‘Memoir is a place to illuminate, not seek revenge.’ Elizabeth Knox

‘The Villa is a book of 100 tiny pieces. That’s how my brain was. Everything had fallen to pieces. I was writing in a state of shock.’ Fiona Farrell

‘I am a product of socialism and feminism.’ Fiona Farrell

‘We are not just a who or a what we are also a here.’ Martin Edmond

‘Archives are as questionable as memory.’ Martin Edmond

‘Poems have tended to ambush me every few decades.’ Fiona Kidman


[ I   k e e p   r e m e m b e r i n g

t h i n g s  a n d    a d d i n g     b i t s]


Yesterday there was a flurry of writers on social media suggesting the Ruapehu Writers Festival was the best festival ever. I have loved the richness and discoveries of so many other festivals, along with the family warmth of Going West. Yet this festival was special. The best ever.

The setting: The mountain to the north loomed large out of clouds, and on some days into bright blue sky. The mountain stream babbled past like a soothing mountain soundtrack. The trains punctuated sessions and we all stopped and listened to the comforting sound of travel.

The writers: The writers came from far and wide (Martin Edmond, Fiona Farrell). Bigger publishers were represented (Penguin Random House, Auckland University Press, Victoria University Press) and so too were the boutique Presses (Seraph Press, Anahera Press, Mākaro Press, Cat & Spaghetti Press, Hue & Cry – to name a few).


The sessions: Not a single dud. Just smorgasbord of highlights. I do want to pick out a couple of presentations that struck a chord with me.

Merrilyn George shared Ohakune stories with Martin Edmond. Wow! I wish the whole country could have squeezed in to hear the way the local matters. Has mattered, does matter and will matter. It was Martin’s session too, but he let Merrilyn take centre stage with his little anecdotal prompts.

The fluency of my good friend Sue Orr when she got talking about place as character.

Three writers musing on the Desert Road: Fiona Kidman, Ingrid Horrocks and Fergus Barrowman (standing in for Nigel Cox). The conversation just flowed and the extracts were riveting. I have tracked down Ingrid’s essay, ‘A Small Town Event,’ in Sport 43. The sample stuck with me so I need to read the whole thing.

Elizabeth Knox‘s festival lecture, ‘On Doubt, Doubtingly,’  explored the implications and means of building memoir. Particularly in view of multiple selves, and the multiple reception and behaviour of selves. Elizabeth showed the way ideas can move, stimulate and challenge. Deliciously complicated and moving.

The children who came to my poetry session. Some as a result of my visit to Ohakune Primary School on the Thursday. I had an outstanding time there. This is a school where the teachers have already sown the fertile seeds of poetry. PS Jenny and Laughton Patrick did a great job getting the whole room singing!

Three writers talk on structure: Pip Adams, Emily Perkins and Fiona Farrell. This session got on National Radio because Fiona let her guard down and moved most of us to tears. I thought I was going to start sobbing out loud. Listening to Fiona read from The Villa at the End of the Empire — a book shortlisted in the nonfiction section of the Ockham NZ Book Awards — was extraordinary. Yet the session was this and was more than this. It embraced two other terrific readings and generated a conversation on structure that made me want to get writing.

Six writers read from Extraordinary Elsewhere: Essays on Place from Aotearoa New Zealand (forthcoming VUP). Ashleigh Young‘s detail kept ringing in my ear, along with the moving circularity of Harry Rickett‘s essay and the philosophical nuggets of Martin Edmond (which I tweeted throughout the session).

I was quite taken with the response of Tim Corballis and Thom Conroy (chair) in my session on POV. I just loved the way Tim proposed the leaf on the boy’s shoe acted as a transcendental point of view. Ha! Thom was an excellent chair.

The final session of poets was a perfect way to end. I discovered the poetry of Hannah Mettner and will go hunting for it in issues of Turbine. I loved hearing Fiona Kidman read from her new book (out next week) and Vana Manasiadis from her old. Magnolia Wilson was also a new find off the page (I had loved her foldout poems). A local poet and ex-librarian, Helen Reynolds read her poems in the quietest of quiet voices. We stretched forward, further and further into her reading. It felt like I was bending forward into the end/ear of the festival.


The atmosphere: Warm, intimate, stimulating, generous. The festival had the family flavour of Going West but in a mountain setting. At four thirty each day we spilled into the bar for a glass of wine and platters of gratis nibbles before the final sessions. We shared conversation and that conversation was infused with a common love of books. And an infectious engagement with ideas.

The chance(ish) encounters: Hearing Amy Leigh Wicks read poetry for the first time and having lunch with her. I am itching to write about her poems on the blog. Sitting under the cool of a tree and talking women’s poetry with Sarah Jane Barnett (she was there as reader, as were other writers!). Eating breakfast with the very lovely Fiona Kidman and talking about women’s poetry in the seventies. Meeting a man who lived next to Eileen Duggan but not getting to follow that revelation up (ah! rue!). Drinking coffee with Fiona Farrell and talking about how something in the air or on the page prompted us to let our guard down. Just a tad. Meeting old friends.

The special features: A band of writers cycled back from Horopito Hall with James Brown after hearing a session on cycling and poetry (ok Ashleigh Young where can I read a version of your lost-things poem?). A local kaumatua guided at least forty readers and writers up to a waterfall and back (around two hours). Stacy Gregg led some fans on a horse trek.

The audiences: Most sessions were full to the brim.

The chairs: I especially loved Fergus Barrowman (he did zillions with just the right degree of input), Nick Ascroft (he was hilarious) and Thom Conroy (astute listener!).

The organisers: Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Simon Edmonds built a festival out of nothing yet when I reflect upon this daring, I realise it was out of something. The festival grew out of the hard labour and inventive thinking of these three. It also grew out of the good will these three can harness: from the locals, the venue, the schools, the publishers and the out-of-town readers and writers. It might sound corny but it also grew out of the physical location and its beauty. The festival always bore this mind.

It was really good to hear Anna and Helen read and share ideas. I loved too the way they sat in the front row in every shared and listened so intently. I could see the joy of the occasion on their faces. You don’t usually see festival organisers with freedom to sit in the front row and listen. Yet another sign of what made this occasion special.

Place matters.

I think if I were to ask all writers and readers to join me in a huge pakipaki for Anna, Helen and Simon we would drown out the mountain stream and the passing train. Just for a moment. We are in debt to you. Thank you.


Excuse my phone photos!



Some photos and thoughts on The Lauris Edmond Memorial Poetry Award

This award was launched by the Canterbury Poets’ Collective and The NZ Poetry Society in 2003. Five poets read in a festival slot and one poet gets the award. Originally the event was staged during the Christchurch Writers’ Festival but, after the earthquake, it moved to Wellington (with one brief return).

This year Dinah Hawken, Bob Orr, Claire Orchard, Chris Tse and Harry Ricketts read. The festival as a whole seems to short change poetry somewhat, so I welcomed the opportunity to hear this group. Ultra small venue which was full to max. Would there be an audience to fill something a little bigger?

But smallness is intimate and the readings were a treat. I was especially keen to hear Claire Orchard read as I have her debut book next on my pile to read and already have a strong relationship with the work of the other poets. I loved her reading.

The winner: Bob Orr. It feels like this award casts light on a poet who deserves a little more attention. Bob has the ability to take you to all four corners of the world and show you a vital snapshot. Something that gets to the very heart of place, of people, of experience. His poetry comes out of strong attachment to home but is wide in its reach. Wonderful!

Bob thought he had just come to read a couple of poems  so was quite surprised to get the package with a cheque.

A few years ago I was delighted to launch a collection of Bob’s at the Grey Lynn Library. It was packed to the rafters with poetry fans of all ages. So seldom do I see such a turn out. The warmth and affection for Bob and his poetry in that room was exactly why he deserved this award.


Harry Ricketts’s Half Dark — These poems are like little retrievals from the shade of the past


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Harry Ricketts, Half Dark  Victoria University Press, 2015

The title of Harry Ricketts’s new poetry collection, Half Dark, is apt as many of these poems are like little retrievals from the shade of the past. Poetry as retrieval. As excavation. As reflection. The half dark underlines (as does the blurb on the back) that this collection is dedicated to the gap, and that in these spaces, there is electric life. Poetic life. One poem, ‘Gap,’ makes reference to the haunting voice of the London Underground:


‘When I grow up, I want to be

the man who says “Mind the gap”.’

Down the years how your voice,

that phrase, have haunted me.


Yet ‘mind the gap’ is also like the surrogate, underground voice of the poetry that cautions us to stall in the gap for it is there poetic rewards will multiply. If you think of the poetic gap, you are lead in myriad directions from the silent beat at the end of the line, to the white space of the page, to the tension between what the poet holds back what the poet reveals. All these things are paramount in a collection that pays diligent attention to the pause at the end of the line, the form of the poem upon the page and what is revealed by choice. Yet what animates the poems beyond this is the gap of recollection, with so many examples stretching back in time to record and review. Now the gap is the faltering stutter of history where the past is only visible in pieces and can so easily be misremembered and even diverted to suit a cause. The London-Underground echo resonates on another level when you bear in mind the punning possibilities of the word ‘mind.’ Step beyond the warning (Watch out!) to the need to tend and care for and you reach the subterranean simmer that shows these poems come from the heart. The poet loved and the poet minded.

One striking example is a triloet dedicated to Jessie. The looping lines signal the circularity of families dividing and returning, of life itself though generations of fundamental behaviour and connections. Much is not said, yet the mood that permeates is infectious and moving:



Sometimes we find ourselves quite

overcome and can’t hold back the tears,

but still we walk, talk, laugh in soft November light;

a day to set against all the lost years.


In ‘Broken Song,’ the gap is replayed on the page in the syncopated words, the white space, the withholdings paramount.


Harry has often displayed a predilection for traditional forms; they become vessels for play, for the allure and comfort of repetition, for the challenge of innovation or depth within constraint, for a contemporary licence to laud, rattle and refresh. In his endnote, Harry addresses his current preoccupation with the triolet: ‘I soon found that, like the villanelle, the restrictions and repetitions of the triolet can lead to writing poems not merely playfully or self-consciously ingenious (nothing wrong with that of course) but poems embodying confinement and the inability to break out of particular cycles of thought, feeling and behaviour.’ There are ways in which his triolets do this, as in ‘Jessie,’ yet there is often a word or phrase that acts as splinter. In this poem, for me, it is the word ‘lost’ as it becomes a universal beacon. It breaks out from the individual story (the way you can’t go back as father and son in this case) and spikes your own disconnections and connection, your own missing pieces.

Poetry also sparks on poems as startling neighbours. In some poems, it almost feels as though this intrudes on that, and that intrudes on this, to offer different insights.  in ‘The Frick  comes to Lake Rotoma,’ it is as though the tracing-paper museum is laid over the tracing-paper lake and you understand that purity of location is perhaps a pipe dream. Something always tugs at you elsewhere and something always keeps you heartily rooted here.


These postcards before you are meant

to bring back the Frick, that sumptuous


room, Fragonard’s Four Stages

of Love: meeting, pursuit, lover

crowned, love letters—all those pink roses,


that jaunty parasol, No,

you’re still here, sweat trickling over

your ribs. They knew love wasn’t that easy.


Perhaps, the feature that I found most admirable was the way in which many of the poems bear witness to an instance. The gaps heighten this effect along with the detail, musical choices and tropes. There is a sense that the poem frames a moment, an incident, a scene, a person (friend or family in many cases). ‘Pewsey’ is a terrific example of this, as is ’10 to 3.’ The latter again catches the circularity of life with a perfect balance of economy (the gap) and detail. The central image comes alive with a trope that evokes vulnerability, tenderness, stillness: ‘your hands bunched like spiders/ the purple eiderdown.’ The poem haunts as it exposes a moment so intimate, in its familiarity, it becomes universal.

Harry’s new collection takes you from Te Mata Peak to Frankfurt to Rome. It traverses weather, old friends and family. What marks the measure of book, is the fact there is so much one could say about the connections that emerge from the spaces. The poems are the heartbeat of a backward look; at times mourning, often contemplative, they revel in humour as much as intimacy, in sumptuous detail as much as the well-tended gap. This is Harry at his poetic best.


Victoria University Press page here

Poetry Shelf interview with Harry here





Poetry Shelf interviews Harry Ricketts — All I can remember about his poem is that it contained the phrase “curly kale”

 Harry Ricketts 2011    half_dark_front_small__05477.1417645489.220.220

Harry Ricketts has written over twenty-five books, and while poetry is a primary love, he also writes in other genres. These include literary biography (The Unforgiving Minute and Strange Meetings:The Poets of the Great War), personal essays (How to Live Elsewhere and How to Catch a Cricket Match), and has co-edited a number of New Zealand poetry anthologies (including Spirit in a Strange Land, The Awa Book of Sports Writing and 99 Ways into NZ Poetry). He teaches English Literature and creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington. Half Dark (Victoria University Press, 2015) is Harry’s tenth collection of poems. To celebrate this new book, he recently answered some questions for Poetry Shelf.



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?

My yo-yoing childhood certainly shaped me as a person. My father was in the British army, and we moved every couple of years. This has made me see everything as temporary, provisional, also to think of the present as the moving edge of the past. I read novels, the longer the better: Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, C S Lewis, Tolkien, Conan Doyle ‒ and endless comics. Not much poetry, though at school we had to learn poems by heart: “The Highwayman”, “Cargoes”, “Gunga Din”. They had good thumping rhythms which, together with the rhyme, made them easy to memorise. We then had to stand up and recite them in class – quite an ordeal. I still remember some of those poems and others that ‘sing in the head’, and I’m sure that contributes to my enjoyment of poets like James Fenton and Derek Mahon who use metre and rhyme much more subtly. I remember once we had to write a poem for homework. The title and subject were up to us. My effort was feeble: rhymed, of course, complete doggerel – in every sense, it was even about our dog. But one of the other boys was asked to read his poem out loud in front of the class – a great mark of favour. All I can remember about his poem is that it contained the phrase “curly kale”. And that alliterative phrase, so simple, visual and exact, has always stayed with me. Also the sudden feeling I had when he read it out: a mixture of excitement and envy. I knew that he had somehow managed to pull off something quite beyond me, but which I now felt might be possible. But mostly from the age of eight I was mad about cricket.


When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems/poets as surrogate mentors)?

I started writing poems when I was sixteen. I still thought poems had to rhyme and be metrical, and felt very daring when, trying to copy T S Eliot (whom we were studying), I wrote in what I thought was free verse. I did read quite a lot of poetry: poets were we studying like Wordsworth and T S Eliot, but also Ezra Pound, Wilfred Owen, and Holub and Cavafy (in the Penguin translations that were popular at the time). I particularly liked Cavafy and tried to imitate him.


Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing? What kind of discoveries did you make?

Personally university wasn’t helpful as far as writing poetry went, though I came out knowing a bit about a lot of English poetry from the Anglo-Saxon “Seafarer” to Spenser to Marvell to Gray to Byron to Browning to W H Auden. Nothing contemporary – in fact, nothing post-WW2. We had to write weekly essays – last week Wordsworth, this week Coleridge, next week Keats. It was like a whistle–stop tour of poetry’s greatest hits – wonderful in a way, but also intimidating. Sometimes I felt I was turning into a dial-a-quote.

I do remember reading some Sylvia Plath which was edgily thrilling and liking Roger McGough and Adrian Mitchell because they were funny and expressed political opinions I agreed with. I bought and read Ted Hughes’s Crow when it came out. I don’t think I ‘got’ the poems at all, but I enjoyed their dark laughter (though I wouldn’t have put it like that). This was the time when Gormenghast and Catch–22 were obligatory reading, and Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Godard obligatory viewing. We all said things like “really weird”, “far out” and “freaky”. We were terrified of being normal or at least being thought normal. It had a lot to do with the music we were obsessively listening to: Dylan, the Doors, the Stones, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, later Steely Dan. Each new album was like a bulletin from another, more exciting world. We wanted our lives to be like those songs – “Strange days have found us”; “Remember what the dormouse said” – and fantasised that they were. It was very heady, and I don’t regret it, but it didn’t lead to me writing any halfway decent poems, though I did eventually write some lyrics for songs.


What about as a lecturer?

I think initially being a university teacher was another inhibiter because I only ever taught poems from earlier centuries ‒ often wonderful but not much help (at least in any direct way) with trying to write my own poems. More helpful was the only poetry writing course I’ve attended. This was a two–day affair in 1979, I think, at the Lancaster Arts Festival, run by a poet called Gavin Ewart. He was a playful-serious poet, who, like Auden, used poetic form as a starter-motor and could do everything from villanelles to clerihews, from prose poems to McGonagallesque doggerel. His poems were (are) clever, also often funny (a rare gift in poetry).

The workshop was memorable. The first day Ewart got us to write haiku and limericks and one–line poems, and one man soon got stroppy and said this wasn’t poetry and that only the rather pretty girl with black hair was producing anything remotely interesting and then he stormed out – never to return. Personally I found trying to do the forms useful and helpful, partly because it got me away from Romantic ideas of the muse having to strike – I was still very hung up on Wordsworth and Keats and notions of the creative mood, sometimes ‘suitably enhanced’. And I do think the class generally encouraged me to be less earnest, that play was okay. The second day we workshopped poems we’d sent in advance and that was helpful. Ewart was very hot on line-endings and about not being lazy with rhyme (if you used it): every word had to pay its way.

I was teaching in Leicester at the time and, partly as a result of the workshop, I joined a small group of local poets. We’d meet and discuss our work, but it all tended to be too polite, and when one member won quite a big national prize, the group combusted from envy. But I do think of that as the time when I slowly started to take writing poems more seriously. This coincided with having children, and I’d blue-tack drafts of my poems to the walls and think about them as I walked around at night, holding wakeful babies. Sometimes the poems were about my children (I had step–children too), and I think becoming a parent not only made a huge difference to me as a person but gradually also to the poems I was beginning to write. It’s not a coincidence that the first poem of mine I think is any good – “Your Secret Life” written in my mid–thirties – is about my (then six-year-old) daughter and imagining her as a teenager.


Some people want to let their poems speak for themselves while others are happy to offer provisional entry points. What do you think your role is when you ‘teach’ poetry?

I think if you’re giving a reading, it’s a good idea to say something between poems, offer an entry point, but not so as to swamp the poem. It is hard to listen to poem after poem without a break, particularly if you haven’t read or heard them before. (I have been to readings like this.) Teaching others to write poems or at least trying to help them is a different matter. It’s not your poem, so your role is more like that of a facilitator or midwife, perhaps. Sometimes your own experience can be helpful, but it’s mostly attention and encouragement. And urging them to read as much poetry as possible.


Another terrific example of poetic entry points that work is your book on the war poets (Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War). To me it was scholarly yet satisfyingly fresh in its approach. Your book opens rather than closes the experience of reading these writers. What did you hope to achieve with this book?

That’s very kind of you. I wanted to write a book that demythologised those WWI poets and restored them to a sympathetic human scale, something closer to the people who actually wrote the poems, who together with the horror of the war, had friendships, fallings-out, tried to find a language adequate to their experience.


We wrote 99 Ways into NZ Poetry together a few years ago. Writing the book was a way of viewing the poetry landscape in new lights for me. What discoveries did you make?

New lights for me, too, and many discoveries. You really helped me to read Michele Leggott, a poet I’ve always found very hard.


I love the way your poems reflect shifting forms, pitch, moods, preoccupations and rhythms, yet there is always a clarity of line, a sharpness of detail, the essential moment. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

That’s difficult to answer. Sometimes I’ll deliberately try to write a poem about some event, occasion or person. More usually, I’ll be doing something else altogether ‒ like writing this for you now ‒ and a word or phrase or maybe a memory will suddenly press itself on me, and I’ll find it prompts a line or another phrase and a sense of excitement. Often things just switch off; nothing more happens. But sometimes I have to keep coming back to it (whatever it is) and have to fiddle away, try this, try that. That’s the best part, don’t you think, being inside a new poem? Nothing better. When it’s finished, or as finished as it can be, you’re back in the cold again.


I like that idea — the best bit is when you are inside the poem. Really, your heart starts beating faster. The outside world fades to black (or light). Harry, you have lived both in New Zealand and Britain (like Peter Bland), but I don’t find a relentless niggling tension between here and there in your poems. It is as though a poem steered by you can lay its roots in either place. Are your poems a way of forging home? Laying roots? Being elsewhere?

That’s very perceptive. Temporary roots, anyway. I think the ricocheting childhood thing. I do think that not quite belonging to where you live can be an advantage to a writer.


I agree. Do you think your writing has changed over time?

Yes, I’m not so inhibited, not so hung-up about perfection, more prepared to try things.


Prompted by Eleanor Catton, this question: Do you think we have a history of thinking and writing about the process of writing poetry in New Zealand? Any examples that sparked you? Have you done this?

Well, there are poets who have written about this (Allen Curnow, James K Baxter, Michele Leggott, Bill Manhire among others). But I think there is a fairly general distrust of seeming to proselytise or sound too arty or up-yourself. Some cultures (France, America) seem to be able to talk about the arts (including poetry) more naturally or with less inhibition. But the rise of creative writing schools has definitely increased some writers’/poets’ ability, and desire, to talk about process. It’s a question as to whether this will help to produce better work. Good if it does, but writers sometimes, even often, write best when they break their own precepts.


What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial as a writer.

The Irish poet Derek Mahon and Auden always matter to me. I constantly read and reread them, and learn from them.


What international poets are you drawn to?

The American poet Mary Ruefle has been a belated discovery.


She is a fabulous discovery for me too! I feel like I want to secretly do some MR poems and see what happens. Particularly the white-out pages. What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

In the last year or two? Fleur Adcock’s last two collections ‒ terrific. Ian Wedde’s recent poems.


Ian’s The Commonplace Odes would have to be one of my top NZ picks. Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore. James Brown’s Lemon. Bill Sewell’s Ballad of Fifty-one.


You write in a variety of genres (poetry, non-fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Does one have a particular grip on you as a writer?

Yes and no, but poetry is the thing.


What irks you in poetry?

Poems that presuppose a trust they haven’t earned.


What delights you?

Surprises. Also wit.


I was drawn to the title of your new collection (Half Dark) because for me it signals the way poems emerge from and move in and out of the shadows (as opposed to a glass is half full kind of thing). Why this title?

It’s a phrase in one of the poems. As you say, it suggests movement in and out of shadows. It also suggests the mood and tone of many of the poems.


These new poems are like a steaming road with heart, memory, ideas, anecdote, sights rising up and simmering above the surface— poems that steam with life and possibilities. For me this is one of your best books yet. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Yourself?

One discovery, as I’ve explained in a note in the collection, was about a form called the triolet. I’d never imagined trying this short form with repeated lines, had shared a fairly common sense of superiority towards the form. But an Australian poet-friend Cath Vidler confessed to having become addicted to the form and suggested I try it. I found she was right; it is addictive. More interestingly, I discovered that though usually used for light verse (which is fine, ‘light’ doesn’t have to mean ‘slight’) in fact you can use the triolet for serious, even heart-breaking, subjects. It’s much more flexible than it looks. And, as poets have done with the sonnet and other rhyming forms, you can empty out the rhyme and just keep the shadowy shape. Discoveries about the world? Well, with the death of friends and family, my world is getting colder, half-dark.


I love your triolets– reading them prompted me to write one myself. I can see why they are addictive. There is a honeyed overlap of repetition and within that echo the subtle nuance of difference. Nuances steered  by shifting juxtapositions. Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?

The last poem, “About”, means a lot to me. I started it in 1980 and it’s changed over the years as I have, and I kept losing it and then finding it again. “Noddy” (about a dead university friend) brings him strongly to mind.


I love the blurb on this book. First it references your poem about the phrase ‘Mind the gap’ from the London Underground (that has haunted me too!) and then it introduces the collection as one that ‘addresses the people and places that fill a life and the gaps they leave behind.’ Gaps are so crucial in poems. For me, this entry point heightens my response to your poems. Tell me about the role of gap in this new collection.

It’s all gaps.


Indeed. Is doubt a key part of the writing process along with an elusive horizon of where/when you are satisfied with a poem?

Yes, doubt is key. Also gratitude.


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?



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?

Rules are to be broken, but it’s worth knowing what they are first. Personally I don’t end lines with words like ‘a’, ‘the’ ‘in’ or ‘of’, unless there is a really good reason.


Do you find social media an entertaining and useful tool or white noise?

A bit of all of these.


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?

W H Auden’s Collected Poems.


Thanks Harry!


Victoria University Press author page

NZ Book Council page