The Auckland Writers Festival is a strong supporter of poetry in Aotearoa, hosting a variety of events that feature poets from across generations, locations, styles, genres. You will find poets in conversation, in performance, on mixed panels, in outdoor street settings. Poetry is such a key part of many our literary festivals, I was delighted when Kasandra Hart-Kuamoana and Bridget van de Zijpp from the the Auckland’s literary festival agreed to pick some poems.
Hotel Emergencies, Bill Manhire
I love the way Bill Manhire’s poem, Hotel Emergencies, starts off with a gentle playfulness and a mild sense of internal panic and then spirals out to something much darker and concerned about state of the world. I once saw Bill reading it, saying he was inspired by a notice in a Copenhagen hotel room, and it stuck with me so firmly that forever after whenever I saw a badly translated notice near the door of a hotel room I would think of this poem. (Bridget)
When they ask you where you are really from, Mohamed Hassan
I was overseas when the mosque shootings occurred and from so far away I had only glimpses of how the tragedy was opening up a new dialogue here about racism and belonging. Then, on returning home, I picked up Mohamed Hassan’s collection, National Anthem, and was so moved by the profound intelligence of it, and the way he quietly breaks hearts with his beautiful way of expressing both resistance and recognition, and also tenderness and yearning, warmth and defiance. His reading of ‘When they ask you where you are really from’, which can be found online, is transfixing. (Bridget)
High Country Weather, James K Baxter
Is an Ockham’s razor for lockdown frustration and fatigue. Considered a Kiwi classic by many, and it’s no wonder. Baxter’s call to conquer anger and frustrations, to weather the storm, and to “surrender to the sky / your heart of anger” reads so much like incantation. It takes me down memory lanes of high-country alps, and my home region – through Waitomo Caves, to Rangitoto and Wharepapa South. The speaker recognises the value in never losing sight of the briefest semblance of beauty. The speaker also considers this practice to be an imperative, a survival technique. Where the very act of choosing to “yet see the red-gold cirrus / over snow mountain shine” seems like the utmost act of defiance. I celebrate this and a handful of Baxter’s other early works for their covert rebellion. Their giant phlex of negative capability. (Kasandra)
Eulogy, Ruby Solly
To me, the poem reads like whakatauki on the powerful nature of father and daughter – made even more powerful when explored in this form, and so poignantly. Its voice tends to me. Telling me to walk in both worlds. To grapple with internal conflicts and harness understanding through the wielding of ink and paper, mind and memory – within the external world. It sings of a journey toward catharsis, an accomplishment of the same, and I love that it reminds us how powerful the act and gift of writing is for the pursuit of understanding and reconciliation. (Kasandra)
Ruth Dallas, ‘Pioneer Women with Ferrets’
I use this poem to draw strength from days of old. From three or four, or more, generations ago. See the vignettes of daily life, and the fortitude of pioneers versus now. Be inspired. Let the old photographs that fill your mind with the roads of the road builders, and the hunt and the huntsmen and women, and the strife and the weather worn clothes, trickle into your spirit. Remember that once-upon-a-time tradies never used to have Tough Hands or WorkSafe! This poem stares with stark, steadfast eyes.
An urging for my overdue stocktake of my whakahautanga (self-mastery), I use this poem in times of disillusionment to fortify, survive, and soldier on. (Kasandra)
Pioneer Woman with Ferrets
Preserved in film
As under glass,
Her waist nipped in,
Skirt and sleeves
To ankle, wrist,
In the wind,
Hat to protect
Her Victorian complexion,
Large in the tussock
Startling as a moa.
Round close-set warrens,
And savage grasses
That bristle in a beard
From the rabbit-bitten hills.
She is monumental
In the treeless landscape.
In her left hand
In her right hand a club.
from Walking on the Snow, Caxton Press, 1976. Published with kind permission from the Ruth Dallas Estate
High Country Weather
Alone we are born
And die alone
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine
Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.
James K Baxter
from Blow, Wind of Fruitfulness, Caxton Press,1948. Also appears in numerous Baxter anthologies including Collected Poems, ed JE Weir, Oxford University Press, 1980, 1981, 1988, 1995). Published with kind permission of the James K Baxter Estate.
When they ask you where you are really from
you are an unrequited pilgrim
two parallel lives that never touch
a whisper or a window
to what your country could be
if only it opened its arms
and took you whole
Tell them about the moon
how she eats at your skin
watches you pray and fast and cry
while the world sleeps
how she gives birth to herself and dies
and you wish upon her children
How you wander her night
plant cardamom in your friends’ eyes
cumin in their teeth
zaatar on their brow
lick the rest off your fingertips
it tastes of visa-on-entry
heaven with no random checks
Round the iftar table everyone speaks
of politics and God
trans rights and colonialism
we forget we didn’t speak the empire’s tongue
When they ask you why you speak so well for an immigrant:
Tell them about your grandmother’s laugh
how you never quite knew whether she was story or myth
the upper lip in your conviction
or a song ringing in your bones
drifting through the kitchen window
with the fried shrimp and newspaper voodoo dolls
Tell them how you have always been a voodoo doll
your feet licking the flames
the stove top eye a television screen
a news bulletin
an open casket
the needle pushing and pulling through your skin
every puncture a question played by an accusation
every bullet hole an answer you have to fill
with Xanax and daytime television
And when the muazzen calls you to pray on the radio
you will wrap your limbs in cotton sheets
walk through the crowd with your hands in your mouth
waiting for the gun.
from National Anthem, Dead Bird Books, 2020.You watch Mohamed read the poem here.
As a child
Whenever I was angry,
My father would tell me to write a eulogy
To the person who had caused me pain.
He said that by the end of it
I would see
That even those who cause us pain
Are precious to the world
My father was an exceptional man,
He was blessed
With a gentle soul.
He walking in step
With the many animals he adores
And he treaded lightly on this earth.
To tread as he did
And to leave the world as you found it.
Ideally, improve it.
One day I will read this to a room of faces I barely recognize.
I will look out on a world
No different with him gone
As it was
With him here.
from Tōku Pāpā, Victoria University Press, 2021
The fire alarm sound: is given as a howling sound. Do not use the lifts. The optimism
sound: is given as the sound of a man brushing his teeth. Do not go to bed. The
respectability sound: is given as a familiar honking sound. Do not run, do not sing.
The dearly-departed sound: is given as a rumble in the bones. Do not enter the coffin.
The afterlife sound: is given as the music of the spheres. It will not reconstruct. The
bordello sound: is given as a small child screaming. Do not turn on the light. The
accident sound: is given as an ambulance sound. You can hear it coming closer, do
not crowd the footpaths. The execution sound: is given as the sound of prayer. Oh be
cautious, do not stand too near
or you will surely hear: the machinegun sound, the weeping mother sound, the agony
sound, the dying child sound: whose voice is already drowned by the approaching
helicopter sound: which is given as the dead flower sound, the warlord sound, the
hunting and fleeing and clattering sound, the amputation sound, the bloodbath
sound, the sound of the President quietly addressing his dinner; now he places his
knife and fork together (a polite and tidy sound) before addressing the nation
and making a just and necessary war sound: which is given as a freedom sound (do not
cherish memory): which is given as a security sound: which is given as a prisoner
sound: which is given again as a war sound: which is a torture sound and a
watchtower sound and a firing sound: which is given as a Timor sound: which is given
as a decapitation sound (do not think you will not gasp tomorrow): which is given as a
Darfur sound: which is given as a Dachau sound: which is given as a dry river-bed
sound, as a wind in the poplars sound: which is given again as an angry god sound:
which is here as a Muslim sound: which is here as a Christian sound: which is here as a
Jewish sound: which is here as a merciful god sound: which is here as a praying
sound; which is here as a kneeling sound: which is here as a scripture sound: which is
here as a black-wing sound: as a dark-cloud sound: as a black-ash sound: which is
given as a howling sound: which is given as a fire alarm sound:
which is given late at night, calling you from your bed (do not use the lifts): which is
given as a burning sound, no, as a human sound, as a heartbeat sound: which is given
as a sound beyond sound: which is given as the sound of many weeping: which is
given as an entirely familiar sound, a sound like no other, up there high in the smoke
above the stars
from Lifted, Victoria University Press, 2005. You can hear Bill read the poem at Poetry Archives.
Born and bred in the heart of Te Awamutu-King Country, Kasandra M. Hart-Kaumoana (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Hikairo) completed her BA at Victoria University as a VUW-Foundation Scholar in Film, English, and Philosophy in 2019 – and Creative Writing at the IIML. She has since published two original pieces in Matatuhi Taranaki: A Bilingual Journal of Literature. Kasandra is kept busy full-time coordinating the Auckland Writers Festival and relishes the bona fide westie lifestyle in her newfound home, Waitakere.
Bridget van der Zijpp is the author of three novels: Misconduct (VUP, 2008), In the Neighbourhood of Fame (VUP, 2015), and the recently released I Laugh Me Broken (VUP, September 2021). Bridget returned to Auckland in March 2020 after living in Berlin for a few years and is now the Programme Manager at the Auckland Writers Festival.
James K Baxter (1926 – 1972), poet, dramatist, literary critic and social commentator, was born in Dunedin. He was Burns Fellow at the University of Otago (1966-7). He published numerous plays and books of poetry and criticism during his life time, while several anthologies have been published posthumously. He lived in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington and Hiruharama Jerusalem. An extensive bio is available at ReadNZ.
Ruth Dallas (Ruth Minnie Mumford) (1919 – 2008) was born in Invercargill and lived in Dunedin from 1954. An award-winning poet and children’s author, she won the Poetry category of the New Zealand Book Awards in 1977 for her fifth collection, Walking on the Snow. She wrote over 20 books. During the 1960s, she assisted Charles Brasch with Landfall. She was awarded a CBE for Services to Literature, was the Burns Fellow at the University of Otago (1968) and received an honorary doctorate from there a decade later.
Mohamed Hassan is an award-winning journalist and writer from Auckland and Cairo. He was the winner of the 2015 NZ National Poetry Slam, a TEDx fellow and recipient of the Gold Trophy at the 2017 New York Radio Awards. His poetry has been watched and shared widely online and taught in schools internationally. His 2020 poetry collection National Anthem was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards (2021).
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.
Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Starling and Sport among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā is her first book.
Poetry Shelf Spring Season
Tara Black picks poems
Victor Rodger picks poems
Peter Ireland picks poems
Emma Espiner picks poems
Claire Mabey (VERB) picks poems
Sally Blundell picks poems
Frances Cooke picks poems
We Are Babies pick poems