“Poetry collections published in Aotearoa in 2020 show a wealth of exceptional and original work. It’s an exciting situation for New Zealand poetry. The four shortlisted collections are striking, all exhibiting an acute global consciousness in difficult times,” says Poetry category convenor of judges Dr Briar Wood.
I was so excited about the poetry longlist, I spent the last few months celebrating each poet on the blog. What sublime books – I knew I would have a flood of sad glad feelings this morning (more than on other occasions) because books that I have adored were always going to miss out. I simply adored the longlist. So I am sending a big poetry toast to the six that didn’t make it – your books will have life beyond awards.
I am also sending a big poetry toast to the four finalists: your books have touched me deeply. Each collection comes from the heart, from your personal experience, from your imaginings and your reckonings, from your musical fluencies. The Poetry Shelf reviews are testimony to my profound engagement with your poems and how they have stuck with me.
Over the next weeks I am posting features on the poets: first up, later this morning, Tusiata Avia.
Mary and Peter Biggs CNZM are long-time arts advocates and patrons – particularly of literature, theatre and music. They have funded the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters since 2006, along with the Alex Scobie Research Prize in Classical Studies, Latin and Greek. They have been consistent supporters of the International Festival of the Arts, the Auckland Writers Festival, Wellington’s Circa Theatre, the New Zealand Arts Foundation, Featherston Booktown, Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly the New Zealand Book Council), the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Featherston Sculpture Trust and the Kokomai Arts Festival in the Wairarapa. Peter was Chair of Creative New Zealand from 1999 to 2006. He led the Cultural Philanthropy Taskforce in 2010 and the New Zealand Professional Orchestra Sector Review in 2012. Peter was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for arts governance and philanthropy in 2013.
Hinemoana Baker funkhaus Victoria University Press, 2020
A woman carries in her arms
a heavy rectangle of sky –
roofs and treetops.
She places it in the back seat
of her car to calm down.
You and I sit
like separate circles
of a Venn diagram
unaware of the fabled
tasting zones of the tongue.
Hinemoana Baker’s new poetry collection is peppery, salty, sweet. The poems form a bridge between two homes, Aotearoa and Berlin, and the overall effect is a book you want to keep reading. Again and again and again. I have been reading funkhaus since it arrived in my postbox May last year. Some books are like this. The German word ‘funken’, we learn in the blurb, is ‘to send a radio signal’. I love the idea that poetry becomes a form of broadcast. I love being an antenna, picking up the static, the silences, the connections across eight months.
funkhaus is on the Poetry category longlist of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The shortlist will be announced on March 3rd.
Hinemoana has always achieved a stop-you-in-your-tracks fluency, maybe because she is a musician and her ear is attentive to the sound of the line, regardless of the subject matter, the personal admissions, the political acumen, the light along with the biting dark. I am listening to funkhaus and admiring the pared back melodies, both the acoustic and the electric.
Pepper blacks the pan so never
Shake it near me, wait
For the flagrant animation
In my bed base
In mountain situations
Sleep swaddled, wake ecstatic
from ‘Narcissist advice column’
What has gripped me more than anything – and maybe this particularly matters in these Covid times – is the way most poems are peopled. Yes there is a mesmerising view out the window where the birds are flying in formation. Yes there is a new vacuum cleaner. Yes there is the question of whether extinct species might be revived. But touch the beating pulse of this collection and you will feel people. Unlike the camera that gravitates towards the people-emptied landscape, Hinemoana draws people in close. Think loved ones, friends, family, passersby. Sometimes a poem is infused in the surreal and you imbibe a scene that tilts and sticks. This is is the start of ‘friday night’, a little beauty of a poem:
Way down south
in the south
of the south island of himself
over greyscale trees.
Eagles and meteorites are not.
On other occasions the poem is grounded in the personal. There is always the gap, the quavery silence, the unnamed pronouns (I, we, you, he, she, they), the spiky detail that fascinates, the heart of experiencing, of imagining, of replaying. I especially love ‘aunties’, a poem Hinemoana read for Poetry Shelf (2019). This glorious tour de force of a poem makes people (aunties) utterly, movingly, wittily, wincingly, gorgeously present.
We had a marching auntie and an eyelash-curler aunty, a
headscarves one, a lavender talcum powder aunty and a satin
running shorts one. We had an aunty who was laid out on the
sheepskin rug by that uncle when she was six, and seven and
eight. These might be the same aunties. We had an aunty who
died on the same day as her own sister and turned into that
white horse on the green hill. A drawn-on-eyebrows aunty who
said I don’t care how good they are at yodelling they’re giving
country music a bad name those girls.
Ah but I also love ‘mother’, ‘waitangi day’, ‘if i had to sing’, waiata tangi’. Find the book. Find your own clearings.
Hinemoana crafts poetry as flourishing movement. In part as melodic flow but also in the way poems come into being in surprising ways. The unexpected paths and sideturns. The underlays and overlays. The semantic chords and the visual alerts. In ‘fox’, an animal is spotted outside in the snow (‘The most powerful things / are the ones we simply come across’). The poem entrances as you move from this sweet epiphany to loss of appetite, your own child dying, to the skin as kidney to:
Climbing into the air outside your door
a tufty plant grows from a cobblestone.
And there –
there is the sandwich board with pictures of fruit
and words you don’t understand
which make nothing happen.
Another sublime example is ‘flohmarkt’, the poem I quoted from at the start of the review. Here we move from the striking opening image of woman and sky to tongue myths to dog and bike owners, and then to chairs. This is how poetry can move. It is gap and it is breathtakingly resonant. Here is the end of the poem:
I live with a surplus
of chairs, mostly empty.
My one, with its smooth
wooden arms and your one
if you were here.
The kind of chair you never want
to get up out of
the kind of chair for which
prepositions were invented.
Maybe this sounds old-fashioned but for me Hinemoana’s poetry gets down to the essence of things. There is an addictive economy that opens out into lush and surprising fields of reading. Like a yin and yang effect. Like poetry as a basket of essential oils that you flick on your wrist and carry all day. That work for each of us differently. That sustain and delight, that get you moving and thinking. That change as you wear them over the course of eight months. Poetry as essential. Poetry as skin tingling essential. It feels essential to Hinemona – to be writing poems, to be travelling across the poetry bridge, that arc of static and connection between Berlin home and Aotearoa home, to be grounded in her friends and whānau, her writing support crew. She acknowledges the vital support of those who have offered aroha and wisdom, publication and recording opportunities, reviews, translations, festival invitations in her endnotes. I offer a small thank you to Hinemoana – each book is a gift and we are all the better for residing within your latest one.
HINEMOANA BAKER is a poet, musician and creative writing teacher. She traces her ancestry from Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa and Ngāi Tahu, as well as from England and Germany (Oberammergau in Bayern). She is the author of the poetry collections Funkhaus (VUP, 2020), waha | mouth (VUP, 2014), kōiwi kōiwi (VUP, 2010), and mātuhi | needle (co-published in 2004 by Victoria University Press and Perceval Press).
Hinemoana has edited several online and print anthologies and released several albums of original music and more experimental sound art. She works in English, Māori and more recently German, the latter in collaboration with German poet and sound performer Ulrike Almut Sandig. She is currently living in Berlin, where she was 2016 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer in Residence, and completing a PhD at Potsdam University.
CONGRATULATIONS to all the poets. This is the best longlist I have seen in years. I have loved all these books to a sublime degree. I am also delighted to see a mix of university presses and smaller publishers, and those inbetween. I plan to review Hinemoana and Karlo’s books over the coming weeks (Goddess Muscle, Karlo Mila, Huia Press and Funkhaus, Hinemoana Baker, Victoria University Press).
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.”
‘We are making our grandchildren’s world with our words. We
perceive a world in which everyone sits at the table together, with enough for everyone.
We will make this country great again.’
Joy Harjo from ‘Advice for Countries, Advanced, Developing and falling’ in An American Sunrise (2019)
A weekend in Wellington is always a treat – especially when there are writers and readers events on. I had a blue-sky, social-charging time and I loved it. Laurie Andersonon the Friday night delivered an improvised platter of musical quotations with a handful of musicians that together created a wow blast of sound and exquisite individual turns on percussion, strings, keyboards. Ah transcendental. Just wonderful. Read Simon Sweetman‘s thoughts on the night – he describes it far better than I can.
One bowl of muesli and fruit, one short black and I was all set for a Saturday of listening to other authors. First up Coming to our Senses with Long Litt Woon(The Way through theWoods) andLaurence Fearnley (Scented). Laurence is on my must-read stack by my reading sofa. Her novel engages with the landscape by way of scent, sparked perhaps by by her long interest in the scent of the outdoors. I loved this from her: ‘Writing about the South Island is a political act – I’m digging my heels in and see myself as a regionalist writer’. I also loved this: ‘I’m not a plot-driven novelist. I tend to like delving into sentences. I like dense descriptions. I imagined the book as dark brown.’
Next went to a warm, thoughtful, insightful conversation: Kiran Dass and Jokha Alharthi (Celestial Bodies). Fabulous!
And of course my poetry highlight:Selina Tusila Marsh in conversation with USA Poet LaureateJoy Harjo. I had been reading Joy in preparation for my Poetry Live session and utterly loved her writing. This is how I introduced her on Sunday:
Joy Harjo is a performer, writer (and sax player!) of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She’s the current US Poet Laureate with many awards and honours and has published nine poetry collections, a memoir, a play, produced music albums. She lives in Tulsa Oklahoma where she is a Tulsa Artist Fellow. Reading Joy’s poems, words are like a blood pulse as they question and move and remember – in place out of place in time out of time. I have just read Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings and An American Sunrise. This was what I was thinking when we have to endure the multiple offensiveness of Trump in our faces even at the bottom of the world to pick up Joy’s poetry is a balm that takes you behind and beyond and above and below into a different USA and it is heartbreaking and wounding and the poems might be like rooms where you mourn but each collection is an opportunity for breathtaking body anchoring travel that allows you to see and feel afresh. Joy’s poetry is so very necessary, If you read one poem this weekended read ‘How to Write a Poem in a Time of War’ from An American Sunrise.
But if you went on Saturday night you got to hear Joy read a good sized selection of poems, including the poem I mention above! Joy’s response to her appointment as the first Native American Poet Laureate in USA: ‘a profound announcement for indigenous people as we’ve been so disappeared. I want to be seen as human beings and this position does that. Human beings write poetry. Even if it’s oral, it’s literature.’
So many things to hold close that Joy offered: ‘No peace in the world until all our stories have a place, until we all have a place of respect.’
She suggested we could think of poems as ‘little houses, little bird houses for time grief joy heartbreak anything history what we cannot hold. Go to poetry for times of transformation, to celebrate and acknowledge birth, to acknowledge death. We need poetry.’
Joy: Indigenous poets are often influenced by oral traditions – a reading voice singing voice flute voice more holistic.
Joy: You start with the breath. Breath is essentially spirit.
Joy: You learn about asking, asking for help.
Joy: Probably the biggest part is to listen. You have to be patient.
Joy: The lessons get more intense.
Joy: If you are going to listen to a stone, what range is that?
My energy pot was on empty so was in bed by 8 pm, and so very sadly missed Chris Tse’s The Joy Of Queer Lit Salon. From all accounts it was a breathtaking event that the audience want repeated.
Sunday and I hosted Paula Green’s Poetry Shelf Live.Lynn Jenner was unwell (I was so looking forward to hearing her read as her inventive and moving Peat is so good). My dear friend Tusiata Avia was in town coincidentally so she stepped in and read instead along with Karlo Mila, Simon Kaho, Gregory Kan, Jane Arthur, Tayi Tibble and Joy Harjo.
I love the poetry of my invited guests and got to sit back and absorb. I laughed and cried and felt the power of poetry to move in multiple directions: soft and loud, fierce and contemplative. Ah if a poem is like a little house as Joy says, it is a house with windows and doors wide open, and we are able to move through and reside there as heart, mind and lungs connect.
A friend of Hinemoana Baker’s from Berlin came to me at the end crying and speaking through tears and heaving breath about how moved she was by the session. I got what she was saying because I felt the same way. I guess for all kinds of reasons we are feeling fragile at the moment – and poetry can be so vital. After four years of Wild Honey reading, writing, conversing and listening I have decided the connective tissue of poetry is love aroha. I felt and said that, ‘We in this room are linked by poetry, by a love of it, and that matters enormously’. I felt that at this session.
So thank you Wellington – for all the book fans who supported the events. For the poets who read with me.
I also want to thank Claire Maybe and her festival team. Claire has such a passion for books and such a wide embrace, you just feel the love of books, stories, poetry, ideas, feelings. Yes I would have LOVED to hear Elizabeth Knox, Witi Ihimaera, Lawrence Patchett and Kate Tempest (for starters) on at other weekends but this was a highlight of my year and I am so grateful.
‘Come on Poetry,’ I sigh, my breath
whitening the dark. ‘The moon is sick of you.’
We walk the white path made of seashells
back to the orange light of the house.
‘Wait,’ I say at the sliding door. ‘Wait.’
Hinemoana Baker from ‘manifesto’ in waha / mouth (2014)
For those of you who follow Spotify there is a new project worth checking out: Fuse The Podcast featuring ‘dope Māori and Pasifika people dping big things in the Northern hemisphere’. The latest episode is an interview with Hinemoana Baker.
Madeleine Slavick is a poet, photographer and communications manager at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Masterton. She has reviewed Hinemoana Baker’s recent performance there – a thoughtful review that is as much poetry as it is critique. Brava!
Read Madeleine’s full piece here but here is the beginning:
Funkhaus – the working title of Hinemoana Baker’s upcoming collection. ‘Funk’ as in funk, and also ‘broadcast’ in German, as the ‘haus’ in Berlin where the poet-singer-songwriter once lived, or squatted, had been a GDR radio station. A saxophonist was also there, and Hinemoana would be sleepless in her tiny cubicle. Born in 1968, Hinemoana says she’s too old to live like that, but I don’t see her living any other way. She lives and dives at once. Follows the river out to sea. Hinemoana. Woman of the Ocean.
Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand SpokenWord (University of Queensland Press, 2019) is edited by David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu. David is an award-winning poet, performer, editor, cultural performer and lapsed psychologist. Anne Maire, Te Rarawa, born and raised in Brisbane, is a cultural performer, weaver, theatre practitioner and emerging poet. David and Anne-Marie co-directed the Queensland Poetry Festival from 2015 to 2017.
Solid Air showcases over 100 spoken word artists from Australia and Aotearoa, from 2008 to 2018. In the introduction, the editors outline the increasing presence and vitality of spoken word. Festivals for example are willing to feature poets who have not published books but who perform to diverse audiences in diverse settings. As we see in New Zealand, the form resembles an open house that welcomes everyone without preconceptions or misconceptions on what a poem ought to do or be. Community is important: ‘Central to the ecology of spoken word is the artist returning back to the community.’ Here is the concluding paragraph of the introduction – as you can imagine it strikes a chord with me:
The pieces within this collection have their own agency and spirit, we have merely invited them into this space to create a place where they can join as a chorus and amplify each other. There is not one poetry or poetry audience; there are many and all of them are welcome to enter here. Solid Air is not only a gateway to the multiplicities of poetry available in our region – it is a house in which poetry resides, a speculative investment, constructed from open windows and unlocked doors.
One of the key attractions for me is the diverse range of Australian poets that are brought into view. I wonder if this is the same for Australian readers meeting Ken Arkind, Tusiata Avia, Hinemoana Baker, Hera Lindsay Bird, Ben Brown, David Eggleton, Anahaera Gildea, Jordan Hamel, Mohamed Hassan, Dominic Hoey, Selina Tustiala Marsh, Courtney Sina Meredith, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Ray Shipley, Grace Taylor, Tayi Tibble, Taika Waititi, Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala’. It makes a difference when I play an Aotearoa track because I play it in the voice of the performer. There is something electrifying about being in the actual room, about hearing the voices spin and spark. I found myself googling unfamiliar poets with the hope their voices would fill my room.
Yes the book is a wide open house but it is also a map that I can hold in my hand and then navigate richnesses for both my ear and heart.
The poems speak of connection, movement, disconnection, flight, anchors, home, origins, love, not love, war, peace. The poems are personal, the first person pronoun stands up and is speaking. The poems are often political; frequently the personal and the political are steeped in the same poetic brew where the edge of one is the edge of the other, as in Quinn Eades’s magnificent ‘What it’s really like to grow up with lesbians in the 70s and 80s’.
You will go to your first peace march before you can walk.
You will say handy person, fire fighter, police officer, and automatically refer to all
doctors as ‘she’ as if their gender has not been defined.
Your favourite song when you are four will be ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ by X-ray
The poetry is radioactive, heated lines popping with detail and admissions, and then on other occasions the admissions come in quiet waves, small ripples that carry undercurrents of feeling, experience, reflection. One of my favourite poems – Anahera Gildea’s ‘Sedition – a letter to the writer from Meri Mangakāhia’ – makes clear the importance of language, the importance of one’s own nouns and phrases and ‘defiant speak’. I would love to share the whole poem (I respect copyright) but here is the first stanza:
Here’s what I had in mind, kōtiro, this
clipping at words like overgrown maikuku –
return the blankets of domestic life; don’t fold
washing or wear shoes, polish these rerenga kē.
If this anthology is an open home, a map, it is also a handbook on existence, on navigating a world under threat, along with its pasts and its futures. I pick a poem, any poem, and then linger upon the way language matters, the way story matters, the way a poem can start with one person speaking, offering words that spring to life in the air/ear and then open our relations with the world in myriad directions. My reading begins close up and personal, and then reaches wide into a global embrace. It’s essential reading.
and by default –
an open sea,
what language will not meet me
They convince my mother
her voice is a selfish tide,
claiming words that are not meant
this roiling carcass of ocean
making ragdolls of our foreign limbs.
In the end our brown skin
married to seabed,
Eunice Andrada from ‘ (Because I am a daughter) of diaspora’
Hinemoana Baker, of Ngāti Tahu, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa along with English and Bavarian heritage, currently lives in Berlin. A poet, musician and playwright, she graduated with an MA in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington in 2002. She was the 2009 Arts Queensland Poet in Residence, a writer in residence at the University of Iowa International Writing Program (2010), Victoria University Writer in Residence (2014) and held the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency (2015–16). She has published three poetry collections and several CDs of sonic poems.