Each week Poetry Shelf invites a poet to read and discuss a poem of their own that has mattered to them.
Johanna Emeney reads ‘Night Nurses’ from Family History Mākaro Press 2017
Johanna Emeney’s two collections of poetry are Apple & Tree (Cape Catley, 2011) and Family History (Mākaro Press, 2017). Her nonfiction work focuses on medicine and poetry: The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and The Medical Humanities (Ibidem, 2018) “Disability in Contemporary Poetry” in Routledge’s Companion to Literature and Disability (2020). She was 2020’s editor of Poetry New Zealand, and judge of the Open section of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s annual competition. Jo has a background in English Literature, Japanese and Education—subjects which she read at Pembroke College, Cambridge. She is a senior tutor at Massey University, Auckland.
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020 edited by Johanna Emeney (MUP)
Johanna Emeney works at Massey University as a teacher of creative writing and has published several poetry collections.
Many many years ago my first poetry collectionCookhouse (AUP) appeared in the world and it was a big thing for me. I was at the stove with my baby in my arms, when the phone rang, and I dropped something all over the floor. It was Alistair Paterson, then editor of Poetry NZ, wanting to know if I would be the feature poet. The tap was running, the mess was growing, the pot was bubbling, my baby was crying, but somehow I spoke about poetry and agreed to my face on the cover and poems inside. It felt important.
I have only sent poems to journals a couple of times since then as I find it a distraction, but I love reading NZ literary journals. We have so many good ones from the enduring magnificence of Sport and Landfall to the zesty appeal of Mimicry and Min-a-rets.
Poetry NZ has had a number of editors, and is New Zealand’s longest running literary magazine. Poet Louis Johnson founded it in 1951 and edited it until 1964 (as the New Zealand Poetry Yearbook). Various others have taken turns at the helm – most notably Alistair Paterson from 1993 to 2014. In 2014 Jack Ross took it back to its roots and renamed it Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. This year Johanna Emeney stepped in as guest editor while Tracey Slaughter takes over the role from 2021.
Each issue includes essays, reviews, critical commentary, poetry and a featured poet.
For me Poetry New Zealand 2020is a breath of fresh air. It opens its arms wide and every page resonates so beautifully. It showcases the idea that poetry is an open home. The poems behave on the page in a galaxy of ways, sparking and connecting multiple communities. I feel so satisfyingly refreshed having read this, warmed though, restored.
I am at the point in lockdown where I drift about the house from one thing to next in an unsettled state. I alight on this and land on that. So Poetry NZ 2020 is the perfect resting spot. I want to sing its praises to the moon and back, but I am tired, have barely slept and words are like elusive butterflies.
Johanna Emeney’s introduction is genius: ‘It is wonderful to be chosen by poems, and the very opposite of trying to chose poems.’ And later: ‘A poem choose you the minute it takes you by surprise. To be clear this cannot be any old surprise.’ And later: ‘poems that choose you are like mille-feuilles— thoughtfully assembled and subtly layered.’
I love the way Johanna has treated the issue like we often shape our own collections – in little clusters of poems that talk to each other: ‘Into the water’, ‘Encounter’, ‘Other side up’, ‘Remember to understand love’. It is an issue lovingly shaped – I am in love with individual poems but I am also mesmerised by the ensuing conversation, the diverse and distinctive voices.
The essay section is equally strong. You get an essay by Mike Hanne on six NZ doctor poets, Maria Yeonhee Ji’s ‘The hard and the holy: Poetry for times of trauma and crisis’. You also get Sarah Laing’s genius comic strip ‘Jealous of Youth’ written after going to the extraordinary Show Ponies poetry event in Wellington last year. And Roger Steele’s musings on publishing poetry. To finish Helen Rickerby’s thoughts on boundaries between essays and poetry. Restorative, inspiring.
77 pages of reviews cover a wide range of publishers (Cold Hub Press, VUP, Mākaro Press, Otago University Press, Cuba Press, Compound Press, Titus Books, Waikato Press, Hicksville Press and a diverse cohort of reviewers. With our review pages more and more under threat – this review section is to be celebrated.
The opening highlight is the featured poet (a tradition I am pleased to see upheld). Like Johanna I first heard essa may ranapiri read at a Starling event at the Wellington Writers Festival, and they blew my socks off (as did many of the other Starlings). essa is a poet writing on their toes, in their heart, stretching out here, gathering there, scoring the line in shifting tones and keys. So good to have this group of new poems to savour after the pleasures of their debut collection ransack. I particularly enjoyed the conversation between essa and Johanna – I felt like I was sitting in a cafe (wistful thinking slipping though?) sipping a short black and eavesdropping on poetry and writing and life. Tip: ‘That a lot of poems are trying to figure something out. If you already know it, then you don’t need to write the poem.’
I have invited a handful of the poets to read a poem they have in the issue so you can get a taste while in lockdown and then hunt down your own copy of this vital literary journal. Perhaps this time to support our excellent literary journals and take out a few subscriptions. Start here!
a n a u d i o g a t h e r i n g
First up the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Prize and the Poetry New Zealand Student Poetry Competition.
Lynn Davidson (First Prize)
Lynn reads ‘For my parents’
Lynn Davidson is a New Zealand writer living in Edinburgh. Her latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books in the UK and Victoria University Press in New Zealand. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing, teaches creative writing, and is a member of 12, an Edinburgh-based feminist poetry collective. Her website
E Wen Wong (First Prize Y12)
E Wen reads ‘Boston Building Blocks’
E Wen Wong is in her final year at Burnside High School, where she is Head Girl for 2020. Last year, her poem ‘Boston Building Blocks’ won first prize in the Year 12 category of the Poetry New Zealand Student Yearbook Competition.
Chris reads ‘Brightest first’
Chris Tse is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC. He is a regular contributor to Capital Magazine’s Re-Verse column and a book reviewer on Radio New Zealand. Chris is currently co-editing an anthology of LGBTQIA+ Aotearoa New Zealand writers.
Fardowsa reads ‘Tuesday’
Fardowsa Mohamed is a poet and medical doctor from Auckland, New Zealand. Her work has appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Sport Magazine, Landfall and others. She is currently working on her first collection of poetry.
Photo credit: Jane Dove Juneau
Elizabeth reads ‘Cilla, writing’
Elizabeth Smither, an award-winning poet and fiction writer, has published eighteen collections of poetry, six novels and five short-story collections, as well as journals, essays, criticism. She was the Te Mata Poet Laureate (2001–03), was awarded an Hon D Litt from the University of Auckland and made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004, and was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008. She was also awarded the 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature and the 2016 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection of poems, Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 2018.
Anuja reads ‘Waiting Room’
Anuja Mitra lives in Auckland and is co-founder of the online arts magazine Oscen. Her writing can be found in Starling, Sweet Mammalian, Mayhem, Poetry NZ and other journals, though possibly her finest work remains unfinished in the notes app of her phone.
Semira reads ‘Punkrock_lord & the maps to i_am_105mm’
Semira Davis is a writer whose poetry also appears in Landfall, Takahe, Ika, Blackmail Press, Ramona, Catalyst and Mayhem. In 2019 they were a recipient of the NZSA Mentorship and runner-up in the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award.
Photo credit: Miriam Berkley
Johanna reads ‘The girl with the coke can’
Johanna Aitchison was the 2019 Mark Strand Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee, and her work has appeared, most recently, in the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020, NZ Poetry Shelf, and Best Small Fictions 2019.
Vaughan Rapatahana reads ‘mō ō tautahi’
Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Ātiawa) commutes between homes in Hong Kong, Philippines and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genre in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English and his work has been translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Emma Harris lives in Dunedin with her husband and two children. She teaches English and is an assistant principal at Columba College. Her poetry has previously been published in Southern Ocean Review, Blackmail Press, English in Aotearoa and Poetry New Zealand.
Dani reads ‘I don’t know how to talk to you so I wrote it for me’
Dani is a Wellington poet, and one of the Plague Writers (a Masters student) at Victoria’s IIML this year. They’ve been published in Mayhem, Aotearotica, Takahe, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2020 and others. They’re currently working on their first collection of poetry.
From Walking to Pencarrow: selected poems Cold Hub Press (2016)
This poem was occasioned during Jackson’s one-year stay with a Kuku-Yalanji family in the Bloomfield rainforest. The butchering of the turtle was carried out by his host’s brother and brother-in-law, and it was an incident that clearly raised conflicts within Jackson, both cultural and emotional. It is described in his nonfiction books The Accidental Anthropologist (Longacre, 2013) and As Wide as the World Is Wise: Reinventing Philosophical Anthropology (Columbia University Press, 2016). Jackson includes the poem in the memoir and the textbook.
The speaker’s complete vulnerability to the experience (not openness, vulnerability) is one of the main things that makes the poem so powerful for me. The narrative position of the speaker is that of an outsider endeavouring to be respectfully uninvolved in the spectacle. The reader can feel his reluctance to place judgement on this cultural encounter. However, it impossible not to intuit the initial shock of the first lines and the reverence of metaphor describing the turtle—I see him almost like an old general being denuded of his armour when “Sonny hacks/its mildewed, sea-marbled/breastplate free”. The diction and imagery create a perfectly credible awkwardness and humility to the speaker in the face of the turtle’s brutal death.
The other aspect of “Green Turtle” that I find very powerful is the transcendence of the final image. The last stanza is a distillation of everything that has gone before, and, as an ending to the poem, is exquisite, raising the narrative recollection of the killing of the turtle to a lyric contemplation of this event in the scheme of things, especially within a Western, Christian model. Here, in the final lines, is the shell of the turtle, a vessel containing a blood-wine, literally reflecting the things of the world that go on as normal despite the creature’s violent death just moments before. With this ultimate image, the poet invites his readers to undertake their own reflection on humankind and nature, on life and death, on religion and culture. The poem ends with such opening out, and such unexpected beauty.
Jo Emeney holds a PhD in Creative Writing, and has taught at Massey, Albany, for the past nine years. She also runs the Michael King Young Writers Programme with Ros Ali.
Jo read English Literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and then taught senior school English Literature for twelve years. She has written two books of poetry (Apple & Tree, 2011; Family History, 2017), and one nonfiction book on the topic of lyric poetry and the medical humanities (2018). She has just finished drafting a chapter for Routledge on Disability and Poetry.
Michael Jackson is internationally renowned for his work in the field of existential anthropology and has been widely praised for his innovations in ethnographic writing. Jackson has done extensive fieldwork in Sierra Leone since 1969, and also carried out anthropological research in Aboriginal Australia, Europe, and New Zealand. He has taught in universities in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and is currently Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His most recent books include The Varieties of Temporal Experience (2018), Selected Poems (2017), and The Paper Nautilus: A Trilogy (2019). Cold Hub Press author page.
‘Favoured Exception’ previously published in Poetry NZ 2017
Johanna Emeney has a background as a senior school English Literature teacher — a vocation which she enjoyed for thirteen years. She is the author of two books of poetry: Apple & Tree (2011, Cape Catley) and Family History (2017, Mākaro Press). In 2017, she also wrote a nonfiction book called The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities (ibidem Press). Jo is currently a senior tutor at Massey University, and she co-facilitates the Michael King Young Writers Programme with Rosalind Ali. She is married to David, with a demanding family of two goats and six cats.
More and more I witness clusters of poetry communities in New Zealand – families almost – that might be linked by geography, personal connections, associations with specific institutions or publishers. How often do we read reviews of, or poems by, people with whom we don’t share these links? Poetry families aren’t a bad thing, just the opposite, but I wonder whether the conversations that circulate across borders might grow less and less.
I want a poetry journal to offer diversity, whichever way you look, and we have been guilty of all manner of biases. This is slowly changing.
When I pick up a journal I am on alert for the poet that makes me hungry for more, that I want a whole book from.
I am also happy by a surprising little diversion, a poem that holds me for that extra reading. Ah, this is what a poem can do!
Editor Jack Ross has achieved degrees of diversity within the 2018 issue and I also see a poetry family evolving. How many of these poets have appeared in Landfall or Sport, for example? A number of the poets have a history of publication but few with the university presses.
This feels like a good thing. We need organic communities that are embracing different voices and resisting poetry hierarchies.
Poetry NZ Yearbook Annual offers a generous serving of poems (poets in alphabetical order so you get random juxtapositions), reviews and a featured poet (this time Alistair Paterson). It has stuck to this formula for decades and it works.
What I enjoyed about the latest issue is the list of poets I began to assemble that I want a book from. Some I have never heard of and some are old favourites.
Some poets I am keen to see a book from:
Our rented flat in Parnell
Those rooms of high ceilings and sash windows
Our second city
Robert Creeley trying to chat you up
at a Russell Haley party
when our marriage
from Bob Orr’s ‘A Woman in Red Slacks’
Bob Orr’s heartbreak poem, with flair and economy, reminds me that we need a new book please.
There is ‘Distant Ophir’, a standout poem from David Eggleton that evokes time and place with characteristic detail. Yet the sumptuous rendering is slightly uncanny, ghostly almost, as past and present coincide in the imagined and the seen. Gosh I love this poem.
The hard-edged portrait Johanna Emeney paints in ‘Favoured Exception’ demands a spot in book of its own.
I haven’t read anything by Fardowsa Mohamed but I want more. She is studying medicine at Otago and has written poetry since she was a child. Her poem’ Us’, dedicated to her sisters, catches the dislocation of moving to where trees are strange, : ‘This ground does not taste/ of the iron you once knew.’
Mark Young’s exquisite short poem, ‘Wittgenstein to Heidegger’, is a surprising loop between difficulty and easy. Again I hungered for another poem.
Alastair Clarke, another poet unfamiliar to me, shows the way poetry can catch the brightness of place (and travel) in ‘Wairarapa, Distance’. Landscape is never redundant in poetry – like so many things that flit in and out of poem fashion. I would read a whole book of this.
Another unknown: Harold Coutt’s ‘there isn’t a manual on when you’re writing someone a love poem and they break up with you’ is as much about writing as it is breaking up and I love it. Yes, I want more!
Two poets that caught my attention at The Starling reading at the Wellington Writers Festival are here: Emma Shi and Essa Ranapiri. Their poems are as good on the page as they are in the ear. I have posted a poem from Essa on the blog.
I loved the audacity of Paula Harris filling in the gaps after seeing a photo of Michael Harlow in ‘The poet is bearded and wearing his watch around the wrong way’. Light footed, witty writing with sharp detail. More please!
I am a big fan of Jennifer Compton’s poetry and her ‘a rose, and then another’ is inventive, sound-exuberant play. I can’t wait for the next book.
I am also a fan of the linguistic agility of Lisa Samuels; ‘Let me be clear’ takes sheer delight in electric connections between words.
Finally, and on a sad note, there is Jill Chan’s poem, ‘Poetry’. I wrote about her on this blog to mark her untimely death. It is the perfect way to conclude this review. Poetry is everywhere – it is in all our poetry families.
And this is why you should always keep a reading diary … I’ll have to cobble this together from flawed memory and my messy bookcase. Here goes: most recently, a ‘slim volume’ in the Penguin Modern Poets Three series with work by Malika Booker, Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire. In contrast, also Sentenced to Life and Injury Time by Clive James. Before these: Undying by Michel Faber, the poetry collections on the Ockham longlist, Bill Manhire’s Some Things to Place in a Coffin and Tell Me My Name, Walking by a River of Light by John Gibb, South D Poet Lorikeet by Jenny Powell, Getting it Right by Alan Roddick, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon by Liz Breslin, Taking my Mother to the Opera by Diane Brown, Fracking & Hawk by Pat White, The Trials of Minnie Dean by Karen Zelas, Taking My Jacket for a Walk by Peter Olds, Wolf by Elizabeth Morton, Where the Fish Grow by Ish Doney, Family History by Johanna Emeney, Possibility of Flight by Heidi North-Bailey, Withstanding by Helen Jacobs, Conscious and Verbal and Learning Human by Les Murray, Poems New and Collected by Wistawa Szymborska, Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Glűck, and X by Vona Groarke.
I like keeping an anthology handy too, and in the past year have been dipping in and out of two: Andrew Motion’s Poetry by Heart (on the bedside table) and Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke’s The Map and the Clock (next to the sofa).
What other reading attracts you?
Oh boy, you should see the pile of books by my bed – too many to list here. I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction (especially essays, biographies or memoir). Fiction-wise, I’ve recently finished Fiona Farrell’s wonderful Decline and Fall on Savage Street and am now reading Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks, and some short stories by William Trevor. I’ve recently reread Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (I love all of Strout’s work!). Vincent O’Sullivan’s All This By Chance is standing by for Easter.
Nonfiction-wise, I’m itching to start neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things and Marilynne Robinson’s new essay collection What Are We Doing Here? (I love all of Robinson’s work!).
Name some key starting points (or themes) for your collection.
This is quite a hard question for me to answer because The Yield wasn’t pre-planned as The Yield – it grew very slowly into The Yield, and I only recognised that I had a coherent collection very late in the process. In hindsight I can see quite clearly that the poems are bound together by themes of give and take, love and loss, flexibility and rigidity, toil and harvest. This finally clicked into place for me after I wrote the poem called ‘The Yield’. It was only after that that I felt I had a potential collection in my hands. But most of the poems in the collection were written in the couple of years preceding that moment, and during those years I had no idea whether a book would eventuate. I had hope, but not much evidence!
Did anything surprise you as the poems come into being?
Every poem I write is a surprise to me. I can never get over that fact – it amazes me, always.
Find up to 5 individual words that pitch your book to a reader.
These words are from The Yield: haul, reach, lift, roam, home.
Which poem particularly falls into place for you?
Not sure if I can select one – they all have their place.
What matters most when you write a poem?
I like a tight synthesis of sound and sense.
What do you loathe in poetry?
Sometimes in an art gallery I stand in front of a painting I find ugly or too obvious or (conversely) too obscure – challenging, anyway, a canvas that maybe bores me or offends my personal sense of aesthetics, perhaps even my values. But still, alongside my ‘this is not one for my living room wall’ reaction, I can still respect the graft and the craft that went into making it – so long as it’s well made. Ditto, poetry. What I appreciate, above all else in poetry, is knowing that the poet has really leaned in. That’s a fundamentally appealing quality for me, even if I can’t adore the finished product. But if a poem is attentively made, and it somehow moves me – then I’m all in.
Where do you like to write poems?
In my study or on the kitchen table (though I scribble scraps in my notebook anywhere, any time).
What are strengths and lacks in our poetry scenes?
We seem to have a lively open mic scene all over the country, with a new fizz of high energy youthful involvement alongside the different – no less intense – energy of more experienced voices. I love the diversity of this, the way it opens our ears and hearts and minds to each other. It’s good, too, to see extroverted poets out there connecting with audiences, attracting media comment and generally flying the flag for poetry. But don’t forget the page! I’m a big believer that poetry is a craft learned by practice. Getting better at it is done through serving a kind of apprenticeship, learning the tools of your trade, and being supported, mentored and informed by more experienced practitioners, so for me it’s really great to see newer literary journals like Mimicry and Starling rising up (though I’m sad to see the end of JAAM).
Nothing matches the developmental push that comes from submitting work to a well-read editor to be scrutinised word by word. It’s healthy, too, to have enough possible publication places to be able to avoid only submitting work to your friends or classmates. So, I think we can do with still more editor-curated poetry publications to nourish the development of poetry in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Another lack: we need more platforms for the kind of stimulating and informative longform poetry review that critics like Lynley Edmeades, for example (in a recent Landfall Review Online), are so good at writing. But also, no one should be expected to write a seriously-considered review for nothing. Work is work, even if at the end of the day it’s not mud, but ink, on your hands. Funding, funding, funding: there’s a permanent problematic lack!
Have you seen a festival poetry session (anywhere) that has blown you off your seat (or had some other significant impact)?
I was at the 2010 Granada Poetry Festival in Nicaragua – truly a festival, a celebration of la poesia. The readings were held in parks and plazas. The Nicaraguan people have a passionate regard for poets and poetry – they turned out in their thousands to hear readings from their own and international poets. One particular event stands out for me. It was an evening reading, outside, warm and dark in the main town plaza, with about 2000 people in the audience – all ages, children, teenagers, parents, grandparents. Their listening was so attentive (most poems were voiced twice, once in the poet’s language and again in Spanish translation) – I watched face after face absolutely blossom in response to some lines. There was a feeling of us all being tapped into a high-voltage current – such power. Sheer zappery! And all from words.
If you could curate a dream poetry session at The Auckland Writers Festival which poets would be there and who would mc or chair it?
Sharon Olds, Louise Glück and Rita Dove in conversation with Carol Ann Duffy.
This image has stayed with me since I first read Shaken Down. Even before reading the footnotes, I felt this poem must have come from Johanna’s own experience, directly from her heart. Like most people, hospitals for me are places of memory, loss, fear and guilt. This poem, in a few lines, reminds us of how alien hospitals can feel, despite the kindness of the people doing the best to save the people we love.
Lynn Freeman is Presenter of RNZ National’s arts/culture programme Standing Room Only. She is a former NZ Book Awards judge and an avid reader.
Johanna Emeney lives in Auckland where she tutors at Massey University and co-facilitates the Michael King Young Writers Programme. She has been placed third and been commended in the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine and shortlisted for the International Montreal Poetry Prize. Her debut collection was entitled, Apple & Tree (2011).
Airini Beautrais and Maria McMillan have written up their poetry road trip. I am so hoping this becomes a thing – two poet friends on tour with new books.
both Victoria University Press, 2017
We’ve known each other since the early 2000s, and both of us have been writing poetry for even longer than that. Some common threads in our work include feminism, social justice, environmentalism, and an interest in the possibilities of form. Over a cup of tea one afternoon in Maria’s lounge we agreed that as we both had books coming out this year, we should go on tour. Maria had been working hard in non-poetry related paid gigs, Airini was battling some difficult personal circumstances, and some time on the road reading with other women poets seemed like just what the doctor (of creative writing) ordered.
Somehow the tour got planned amidst the mad mess of everyday life. Sarah Laing kindly agreed to let us use her drawings for promotional purposes. Airini made a DIY poster with the help of scissors, glue, wallpaper and blu-tack. The word went out. The car got packed.
On Friday 14 July Airini held a book launch for Flow: Whanganui River Poems, at the Whanganui regional museum. Maria was the main support act on the night, reading from her recently-released The Ski Flier (Airini had also read at Maria’s launch a month earlier). Jenny Bornholdt read a poem by Joanna Margaret Paul. Other local booklovers read some favourite Whanganui-linked poems. VUP publicist and talented novelist Kirsten McDougall gave a fantastic launch speech.
Accidental ankh, Dannevirke
In the morning it was coffee, porridge and a quick trip to Whanganui’s famous SaveMart ‘The Mill’. Then onto the back roads of the Manawatu with a battered road atlas and smartphones which were largely ignored. We made it over the Pohangina Saddle, and lunched on launch leftovers in Dannevirke, where we discovered a church with a possibly accidental (we think maybe not) ankh – a perfect opportunity for posing with our books. On to Napier where it appeared we had entered a time warp. Airini’s dirty old Honda suddenly looked new alongside the vintage cars sweeping around the waterfront, driven by flappers and dapper gentlemen. The thought occurred to us that it was Deco weekend.
Beattie and Forbes Booksellers with Marty and Emily
Beattie and Forbes Booksellers is a must-visit independent bookstore near the sea in Napier. They opened up on a Saturday evening so we could read, with Marty Smith and Emily Dobson. Old friends and new turned up, along with members of local poetry groups. It seems that anywhere you go in New Zealand, there’ll be a poetry group of some sort, and a reading will draw at least some of them out of the woodwork. A highlight of the evening was Emily reading a poem owing a debt to her young daughter, called ‘Thea’s ‘gina song,’ which ended ‘It’s a ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-BAGINA!’ Both Marty and Emily are accomplished poets and readers and it was a privilege to read alongside them.
Maria at Waiomu Cafe
Sunday 16th we set off from Marty’s picturesque country house, on our big drive through to Thames. The roads had opened, but were still lined with snow. We made it to our reading at Waiomu Beach Café with five minutes to spare. The café is in a beautiful spot and draws in regulars driving around the Coromandel coastal road. It’s run by Maria’s cousin Julie, who was an amazing host. Airini also met some extended family members at the reading. More FM were there, and interviewed us. We read in the outdoor courtyard, adjusting our volume according to the passing traffic. Over the road, a cop issued speeding tickets. A kereru landed in a tree alongside. We posed for more book photos under the pohutukawa, took Julie’s dog for a walk, and enjoyed the scenery.
The Big House, Parnell with Tulia and Emma
Thames seems like the kind of place one could stay in forever, but on Monday morning we carried on to Auckland. We parked the car and went to hear a reading at the Auckland Art Gallery with Steve Toussaint, Simone Kaho, Elizabeth Morton, Johanna Emeney and Michael Morrissey. Everyone read well, but a disgruntled audience member booed, hissed and heckled during question time at the end. Chair Siobhan Harvey did an excellent job of shouting him down. We looked at each other and wondered if this was how poetry readings always went in Auckland. But our reading that evening at the Big House in Parnell, with Simone Kaho and Tulia Thompson, was a very warm and homely affair. Many of the house’s 25 occupants joined us by the fire to listen and talk, and housemate Emma also read some of her poems with us.
Airini at Poetry Live, Auckland
Tuesday night’s gig was Poetry Live, at the Thirsty Dog on K Road. Like the Big House, Poetry Live is an institution that’s been going for decades. We were lucky to be there for the farewell to regular MC Kiri Piahana-Wong. There was a great turnout and the venue and audience were friendly and welcoming. We read by turns in our guest poet slot, feeling like proper rockstars against the backdrop of a drum kit and stage lighting.
By Wednesday we were tired, and ready to head home. We stopped for tea and toasted sandwiches in the Pink Cadillac diner in Turangi. We parted ways at the Desert Road, after which Maria had some variable hitchhiking experiences, and Airini zig-zagged back and forth around the mountains navigating road closures. We’d had a great time and were looking forward to the second leg.
Vic Books in Wellington with Pip and Freya
The next leg kicked off on Friday 28 July with a lunchtime reading at Vic Books. We were joined by superstars Pip Adam, reading from her brand spanking new The New Animals, and Freya Daly Sadgrove, whose poetry is performative and highly entertaining. Maria read her poem, inspired by Pip, ‘In which I attain unimaginable greatness,’ in which the narrator attains superhero powers, achieves amazing feats, and at the end declares ‘This is how I begin. This is my first day.’
Palmerston North with Helen and Jo
Palmerston North City Library on Saturday evening was possibly the highlight of the tour. The library is a great place to read, hosting numerous literary events throughout the year. The big windows feature poems by local Leonel Alvarado, and pedestrians have a way of peering in through the letters, wondering what’s going on in there. We’d decided on a dress up theme of ‘80s trash with our fabulous co-readers Helen Lehndorf and Jo Aitchison, which got us some funny looks in New World, but definitely improved our performances. Helen’s hair was particularly spectacular. We had a small crowd but a great vibe. A kebab and whisky party kept us awake until the wee small hours.
Maria at Hightide Cafe
Helen’s chickens laid us our breakfast, and we revived ourselves with bottomless pots of tea. Maria’s superpowers became evident when she managed to drive us safely to our last gig, Poets to the People at Hightide Café in Paraparaumu. The sun was setting over Kāpiti as we drank coffee and listened to the open mike. Again, this is an event that’s been running for years, and there’s a sense the regulars know and love one another. We went home to a beautiful roast cooked by Maria’s partner Joe. The tour was over, but the fight continues! We had some great conversations in the car over those two weeks, and some good catch-ups with family and friends along the way. There was a lot of fighting talk, a lot of laughter and also a few tears. A big part of the tour was affirming ourselves as poets, mothers and radical women, and by the end of it, our unimaginable greatness was hard to deny.
Airini Beautrais and Maria McMillan, September 2017
Going West is a festival that devotes itself 100 per cent to showcasing an eclectic range of New Zealand writers: local, ultra-local (Westies), from out of Auckland. It draws upon fiction, poetry and nonficton and never fails to delight.
Due to the fire in the roof of Titirangi hall the festival moved into the beautiful ex Waitakere council chambers – better parking, not so far to drive for me, excellent green room, cosy space for sessions but I missed the hall and the bush and the village. As a temporary last minute venue – which must have been such stress on the team – it worked just fine.
As usual the food and shared conversations were excellent. Usually I go the whole weekend – but this year, just the Friday night and Saturday was possible. It means I sadly miss out on a suite of sessions today.
On Friday night we got to see our new Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh in performance and, just as she sparks the poetic hearts of students in South Auckland (and elsewhere), she sparked the poetic hearts of festival goers. She delivered her Laureate ‘thank you’ speech again, a speech which acknowledges the people that have supported her, in the form of a list poem. She read her poem for the Queen with generous anecdotes to accompany it along with the revenge poem (he who shall not be named did not shake her hand), and the poem on three Queens, the last being Alice Walker.
The tokotoko was passed round for everyone to touch and imbue the stick with individual mana. Skin prickling for so many of us.
Every New Zealand Poet Laureate has gifted something to poetry fans. Selina, one of our beloved poetry icons, with the charisma of Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare and Glenn Colquhoun, is one of the most important Laureate choices to date. Those of us lucky enough to hear her on Friday night, will know just what treasures we have in store. It matters, as she says, that she is a brown face. It matters to every brown poet, every fledgling brown poet, and every student white and brown, who has yet to discover the liberating power of poetry.
It matters because Selina’s poetry shows how words can make music in the air, build vital connections to heart and mind, and challenge how we view the world.
If you get a chance to see her over the next few years – take it!
In a perfect and unplanned arc, Bill Manhire, our first Poet Laureate, and another beloved poetry icon, was part of the final session of the night. With jazz musician Norman Meehan, vocalist Hannah Griffin and Blair Latham on sax, we got to hear tracks from their new collaboration: Small Holes in the Silence. I have heard them before but the magic intensifies if anything on a subsequent hearing. The alchemy of word, musical score and manuka-honey voice is simply exquisite. It is absolutely breathtaking.
The next day, in our session, I described how listening to their new album/book, Tell Me My Name, is like a flotation aid. You listen and you lift above domestic routine, chores, head clutter. So yes, I floated home, adrift still in the after-effects.
Saturday was a long day, a good day. I had only managed a few hours sleep for various reasons so felt like I was in between here and there, wwhich is the theme of the festival. On the way I passed so many ALTERNAT ROUTE signs I wondered if I would find my way home through all the detours that might then be in place. I felt like I was entering a found-poem trap and I would get stuck in it.
Sitting on stage with Bill and Norman for our session was a bit like sitting in a cafe – I wanted Norman to hit the keyboard and play melodies here and there. I loved the idea of him playing something while we listened to see what word score unfolded in our heads. The inverse of Norman taking Bill’s poem and seeing what melody surfaces. It was fun to talk – people just happened to be listening!
Sadly I missed Diana Witchel and Steve Braunias – but I am going to make up for that and read the book: Driving to Treblinka. The audience loved this session.
I did hear Dame Anne Salmond in conversation with Moana Maniapoto and it was for many of us, an extraordinary thing. The conversation just flowed – it felt unafraid of anything: wisdom, human warmth, tough stuff, vulnerabilities, empathy.
In 1960 Anne met Māori and asked herself: ‘How come I’ve grown up in this country and know nothing about these people and this world?’
Eruera Stirling advised her: ‘If you are really interested in Māori Studies then the marae is the university for you.’
Anne: ‘I am a scholar but there’s a lot of stuff you can’t learn with your mind – you have to learn through your skin.’
Anne: doesn’t necessarily agree with the idea of one world with different views but prefers perhaps the idea of a ‘mulitverse with different realities.’
Anne: ‘You can’t be an expert on the Treaty if you can’t speak Māori.’ She said it would be like someone who couldn’t speak French acting as an expert on the French constitution.
Anne: ‘If the river is dying I am too.’
This is why I am both a reader and writer and a festival attendee. Because someone like Anne in conversation with someone like Moana can blast apart my thinking and feeling.
I have a copy of Tears of Rangi by my bed to read.
I got to hear Sarah Laing and Johanna Emeney read and talk. I have to say I love both the books (Mansfield and Me and Family History) and have written about both. I love the way they showed that poetry/memoir does not need to stick to facts (Airini Beautrais said the same thing in her interview with me). The gold of this session was hearing the multi-talented Sarah read an extract with an enviable array of accents. Wow!
Loved hearing tastes of Pip Adams and Kirsten McDougall’s new novels – and the way the unreal can unravel the real in such innovative ways. They worked double hard not to spoil the reading experience, for those of us who still have the treat in store, by giving too much away. Just little tempting clues.
Loved hearing the very articulate Linda Cassells talk about the genesis of the Allen Curnow biography she edited after the death of her husband, Terry Sturm, and the way Bill Manhire stepped into the gap, with CK Stead ill, read us a few poems, and shared a few anecdotes.
Thanks Going West. This was one very good festival – I was delighted to participate as both reader and writer.
The Case of the Missing Body, while also on the subject of living with pain/disability, is an entirely different book to The Walking Stick Tree. It contains scientific writing, poetry and, predominantly, prose, to tell the story of a woman regaining the capacity to connect with herself physically.
Powell uses the pseudonymous Lily in the prologue of the book to introduce us to the central character (who will be ‘I’ throughout the book). From childhood, Lily has had a proprioceptive deficit and joint hypermobility syndrome, which, combined, and not properly identified or treated in her youth, have caused her considerable pain and distress. Now in mid-life she is anxious, lacking in confidence and, admirably, desirous of change: she joins a gym and employs a personal trainer.