Tag Archives: Johanna Aitchison

Eleven NZ women’s poetry books to adore and some fiction – Happy International Women’s Day!

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Book Award lists should promote debate. Ideas and issues should be raised. As long as judges and authors don’t come under personal attack. It is a time of celebration, let’s not forget that, but it is also a time when diverse opinions may draw attention to our healthy landscape of books.

I have just started writing a big book on poetry by New Zealand women. I have carried this project with me for a long time, and it something I care about very much indeed. It is a book I am writing with a great sense of liberation and an equal dose of love.

I bring many questions to my writing.

The shortlist for poetry and fiction in the Ockham NZ Book Awards includes 0ne woman (Patricia Grace) and seven men. There are no women poets.

This is simply a matter of choice on the part of the judges and I do not wish to undermine the quality of the books they have selected. However, in my view, it casts a disconcerting light upon what women have been producing in the past year or so.

Women  produced astonishing books in 2015. I reviewed their poetry books on this blog and praised the diligent craft, the exquisite music, the sumptuous detail, the complexities that challenge and the simplicity that soothes. I have lauded books by women that have moved me like no other, and that have contributed much to the possibilities of what a poem might do.

I am gobsmacked that not a single one made it to the shortlist.

Men have written extraordinary poetry in the past year, but so too have women.

Today is International Women’s Day. In celebration of this, here is a selection of poetry and fiction I have loved in the past year and would have been happy to award.

This list is partial. Please add to it.  Some of these women are my friends, so yes there is unconscious bias. Some of these women I would recognise in the street, some I would not.


Eleven Poetry Books by women to adore

(I have reviewed all these to some degree on Poetry Shelf or interviewed the poets)

Emma Neale  Tender Machines This is a domestic book that is utterly complex. Yet it moves beyond home to become a book of the world. The music is divine. I am utterly moved. The Poetry Shelf trophy is yours Emma.

Joan Fleming Failed Love Stories Poetry that dazzles and shifts me. This book is on replay!

Holly Painter Excerpts from a Natural History Startling debut that blew me out the window and made me want to write

Sarah Jane Barnett Work Poetry that takes risks and is unafraid of ideas. Adored this.

Johanna Aitchison Miss Dust Spare, strange, surprising, wonderful to read.

Anna Jackson I, Clodia and Other Portraits The voice gets under my skin no matter how many times I read it. So much to say about it.

Jennifer Compton My Clean & The Junkie This narrative satisfies on so many levels.

Airini Beautrais Dear Neil Roberts Risk taking at the level of politics and the personal.

Morgan Bach Some of Us Eat the Seeds Beauty of the cover matches the surprise and beauty of the poetry within.

Hinemoana Baker waha/ mouth This poetry lit a fire in my head not sure which year it fits though. But wow!

Diane Brown Taking My Mother to the Opera This is poetry making pin pricks as it moves and gets you chewing back through your own circumstances.


…. and this is just a start. Ha! Serie Barford with her gorgeous mix of poetry and prose.

Yep I am going over board here just to show you that women have footed it with the best of the men. Whichever year you look at, a different set of judges would come up with a different mix of books. Yes let’s celebrate that worthy shortlist but let’s also remember that canon shaping only revels in and reveals part of the story.


Fiction (I haven’t read so widely here and have a wee stack to get too – Laurence Fearnley and Charlotte Grimshaw here I come!)

Anna Smaill The Chimes This book – plot character, setting, premise, events – still sticks to me. The sentences are exquisite. Some books you lose in brain mist. Not this one.

Sue Orr The Party Line I see this book becoming a NZ classic – a novel of the back blocks. The characters are what move you so profoundly. So perfectly crafted.






Poetry Shelf review: Johanna Aitchison’s Miss Dust – Simple, everyday cores of truth that have as much to do with how you feel the world as how you see the world

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Johanna is a poet who was living in Palmerston North (quite a hub of poetry activity!) but currently in Iowa. I haven’t read her debut chapbook from Pemmican Press, Oh My God I’m Flying (1991), but I really loved her second collection, Long Girl Ago (Victoria Press, 2007). The poems felt fresh, playful, finely crafted, and surprising in the little revelations, particularly in the poems that placed little frames on Japan. The book was shortlisted for best book of poetry the following year. Johanna’s new collection, Miss Dust, was recently released by Seraph Press. It is a collection in two parts with many bridges between, and the freshness, the economy and the diligent craft remain a vital feature.

What catches me with these new poems is the heightened degree of surprise. This is poetry tilted on its axis. The first section is devoted to a sequence that gives life to Miss Dust. When read together, the section forms a long narrative poem, or perhaps you could say, a long character poem in pieces. In trying to liken the startling effect of reading this life, I came up with a hybrid analogy: it is like an Eleanor Rigby portrait meets a Salvador Dali painting meets a dislocating dream state meets a short film by Alison Maclean meets Edward Lear meets a veiled memoir.

The idea of dust is ephemeral — it leaves traces and smears, it veils and it clouds. Perfect word for a character that hides behind tropes, white space and poetic jump cuts. The tropes are borderline surreal (‘The curtains of her house are ash’). At dinner with her online date, he ‘ordered for her the dark.’ Yet even though things are strange, it is the effect of the bridges and the gaps that augment the mood, the portrait, the arc of a life. Take ‘Miss Dust and the Affair.’ The little leaps from one thing to the next, from one action to the next, miss the gritty details that might pepper confession, exchanged story. The poem is mysterious and haunting, but if you lift out the stepping stones (that occur on other occasions throughout the book) you get a terrific story of love lost: affair kiss lips lines waves rocks cheeks. That story is the undercurrent of the poem, hiding in the dust. Miss Dust, herself, would sum up the undercurrent with two words (‘black heart’), words that crop up in a number of the poems.

The movement between things is also surprising or disconcerting in the poems and feeds into the crucial threads of loss and love and life. In ‘Miss Dust makes a promise to her black heart,’ every line seems to offer a new twist —  the way the dreaming mind takes the ordinary and then skews it to show a deep-seated feeling pulsing through.


Here is the cure: sitting

on someone else’s carpet,


she makes herself a promise,

with the help of a chisel


and a block of A4 refill.

She chips out a beach scene


three streets away, hammers in

stones that warm or cool


You can’t just read this poem and walk away. It holds you tight as Miss Dust walks into the beach scene and ‘lowers the plunger/ onto one more set of grounds.’ There is that jarring kink between the scene carved (hope, therapy, cure) that catapults the black heart to elsewhere and the chore of making coffee. For me, the word ‘grounds’ flicks and shifts. Yes, the coffee is ground (the daily chore/grind) but also, like the beach scene, ground is another place to lay down roots. To tend damaged roots. Soil, black like the black heart. A single word, and you can set up camp for hours.

I don’t know of a sequence in New Zealand poetry quite like this (maybe I got whiffs of the early surrealness of Gregory O’Brien). Reading and lingering in the half light of Miss Dust, is utterly moving as you fall between the gaps of her life.


The second half of the book is not Miss Dust but there is a similar degree of surprise, little echoes that seem familiar (the half house), the dislocating and then relocating pieces, the way nouns and verbs startle (‘I’m starting to skin your loneliness Miss Shoulder’). There is a stunning Japanese poem, ‘Jun,’ that pulls you back to the previous collection with its final, breathtaking stanza.


one of the saddest things i did in japan was to teach to jun’s photo

on his empty desk i asked the students to count the students

in the class the students said do we count jun


Johanna has delivered a new collection that never lets the dust settle (excuse the pun). Each poem reproduces a glorious jittery, shimmery movement between things, between actions and between things and actions. At the core of that movement: feeling. Yes, you enter a world that is, at times, a little like the bewildering jumps and turns of a dreamscape, but just as with the dream, you fall upon cores of truth. Simple, everyday cores of truth that have as much to do with how you feel the world as how you see the world. I loved this collection.


Seraph Press page