Tag Archives: NZ poet interview

Poetry Shelf interviews Dinah Hawken — ‘any attempt to mirror the natural world is about relationship’



Dinah Hawken is one of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed poets. Born in Hawera in 1943, she trained as a physiotherapist, psychotherapist and social worker in New Zealand and the United States. Most of the poems in her award-winning first collection It Has No Sound and Is Blue (1987) were written in New York in the mid-1980s while she was studying at Brooklyn College and working with the homeless and mentally ill. Her two most recent books, One Shapely Thing: Poems and Journals (2006) and The Leaf-Ride (2011), were both shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards. Dinah was named the 2007 winner of the biennial Lauris Edmond Award for Distinguished Contribution to Poetry in New Zealand. She lives in Paekakariki. Victoria University Press has just released a new collection of poems, Ocean and Stone.



Did your childhood shape you as a poet?

Yes I’m sure it did. One of my favourite memories as a child is my father reading A.A.Milne – the poems – to me when he came home from the farm. We didn’t have a lot of children’s books in those days (40’s and 50’s) and so he read them over and over again and we knew them by heart. Sometimes my younger brother and I would act a poem out: ‘Sir Hugh was singing hand on hip/when something sudden came along …’. What I loved, looking back, was the way my father and his voice changed when he read these poems. Suddenly he was a changed man, a more mysterious and musical man, and the poems had somehow changed him.

There was one poem that had a profound, perhaps lasting, effect on me psychologically. ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor’ – do you remember it? The dormouse was living happily ‘in a bed of dephiniums (blue) and geraniums (red)’ when the Dr came hurrying around and prescribed instead a bed of chrysanthemums (yellow and white). When ‘they took out their spades and dug up the bed/of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red),’ I was devastated at the injustice and imposition of it. They didn’t understand that ‘much the most answering things that he knew/were geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)’. I was worried by this story – the powerlessness of the small, the arrogance of grown ups – but at the same time I was impressed with the dormouse’s solution of imagination: ‘I’ll pretend the chrysanthemums turn to a bed/of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums(red).’ It made me determined to fight to remain myself, to hold onto my ideas and attractions even if I was misunderstood. Like the dormouse I was a dreamy child, but also an active one – a tomboy, keen on sports and outside a lot with bare feet. I thought of myself as a reader not a writer.


As a young adult, were there any poets in particular to which you were drawn?

When I went to Dunedin as a school leaver, to study Physiotherapy, James K. Baxter was living there and I went to some of his poetry readings and lectures. He was the first NZ poet I had ever heard or read and The Rock Woman (selected poems) was the first book of poetry (besides A Pageant of English Verse) that I had ever owned. I’ve just taken it off the shelf and it is one of the most worn books in my poetry collection. I felt the emotion and music in those poems, the power of ‘the best words in the best order’, and the sense of being understood as a human being who lives in this place, this landscape. Existential questions were in the air for me at 18 or 19 and one poem, ‘The Cold Hub’ gave me a strong sense of fellow-feeling and therefore consolation. Poetry as consolation became important for me.

The next year in Palmerston North was significant for me in terms of poetry too. I had a boyfriend who not only liked poetry (a rare find) but who really loved Baxter and who introduced me to e.e. cummings and Yevtushenko. Both mind-opening in their own ways. What’s more, in Palmerston North, I also made a close friend, Phillappa, a nurse, who read poetry and wrote it. She showed me it was possible even though I didn’t start writing seriously – though secretly – till I was in my late 30’s. She was the first person I showed my poems to at that time. And a couple of years later I applied for Bill Manhire’s undergraduate creative writing course.


Your new collection, Ocean and Stone, is one of your best yet. At times, the poems lead me to a place and point of contemplation (outside urban bedlam). The poems remind me of the way I go down to the beach in the morning and all is the same (sand sea sky), yet there is always a pull of shifting nuances. Do you ever see your poems as a way of translating relations with the natural world, both private and nourishing?

Yes I do. Moments and experiences in the natural world give me such pleasure and uplift that I do have an urge to record and share them even though words so often fail the actual experience. But the attempt feels important. And I’m glad you used the word ‘relations’ because any attempt to mirror the natural world is about relationship. I’m a person who wonders a lot and the world around me is one of the most ‘answering things’ that I know.


And wanders in that wondering. That’s what hooks me as a reader. I find your poems are often things of beauty, yet there is a political edge here. It is as though we can no long view the ocean, for example, solely through the exquisite lens of its moods and bounty. Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?

As time has gone on I realize that I am both a nature poet and a political poet though I don’t set out to be. And I hope not exclusively. A poem usually begins with a phrase, a word, an image or a feeling that has a grip on me in some way. It can be a light and friendly grip or an intense, even painful, grip. The poem develops from that and, because of my interests and preoccupations, political concerns or the landscape, often become a part.

In Ocean and stone there is a poem called ‘The uprising’ that was a commission for Lloyd Jones’s issue of the Griffith Review called Pacific Highways. I began the poem thinking about the Pacific, with no conscious intention of writing a political poem. But I’d just read a book about the state of the world’s oceans and the facts in that book, and my feelings in relation to them, naturally flowed into the poem.

But it’s a balancing act to write a political poem and I sense that many poets might disapprove of my attempts – on the grounds of didacticism, emotionality etc. I’m naturally a direct person and I’ve had to learn more indirect and layered ways of expressing myself in poetry. But I’m also willing to be direct about strong personal feelings – a political poem is also a personal poem.


No matter how many times you write a stone poem, Dinah, you have the ability to replenish the subject (I posted one of my favourites from your new collection here). Do you have other motifs to which you are drawn?

Isn’t it amazing how stirring a small stone, like a blank page, can be? I’ve just looked up that famous poem ‘Pebble’ by Zbigniew Herbert where he writes that the pebble ‘is a perfect creature/ equal to itself’ that ‘does not frighten anything away.’ That seems so true to me.

As far as other motifs go, I don’t know. Water, its fluency? Leaf, its green, its growth? ‘The child’? I find myself thinking a lot at the moment about ‘the stranger’.


Yes definitely water! And the child. The grandchildren poems add a different layer to the collection. They remind me of the way women are often keepers of the family archives (scrapbooks, photo albums, treasure boxes). Do  you feel these poems are as much a gift to the family as they are for the reader?

Definitely. I did write them as a kind of scrapbook, a record of my grandchildren’s early development, trying to ‘hold’ some of the delight and moments of discovery that babies and toddlers go through. I started, in my last book, with Elsa from new-born to 16 months and then carried on with Nate from about that age to two and a half. Such an extraordinary time, as a child meets the world. And as a parent you are often too busy to stand back and see it happening.

I’m about to put all the grandchildren poems together in a small volume for the family – and perhaps for other parents of small children as well.


The untitled fragments throughout the book (that ‘stem from the epigraph which is a found poem from The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry’) are so fertile. I particularly loved: ‘a blank page has limits// and no limits.’ What kind of limits do you bump against as a writer?

I no longer have the external limits of time and stress and children and work that many younger writers have – I feel very lucky in that respect. I love writing without pressure – but on the other hand I do have the limits of older age; lack of energy, poorer memory, uncertain health. I find it harder to find words, I seem to have less access to dreams that were a great resource earlier in my life. Many of the poems in the second part of Ocean and Stone are about living with various kinds of decline.

There’s a difference between limits and limitations and so I also have to live within my inherent limitations as a writer. It seems important at this stage to try and see clearly what they are, whether they have any give in them, and to thrive within them. Limits and limitations have a bad name but I see them as the boundaries within which we can have the most ease and can be the most creative.


I love that dichotomy. Is doubt a key part of the writing process along with an elusive horizon of where you are satisfied with a poem?

Another way of considering the contradiction of ‘limits// and no limits’ is to think about faith and doubt in the writing process. They both seem to be essential: faith to believe that something can come from nothing; and doubt to be always willing to question what comes. When I began writing I would lurch, often painfully, between one and the other, now (fingers crossed) it’s more like quietly shifting weight. But you can’t write, can you, without doubt? You can only try to hold confidence and uncertainty in some kind of balance as you go.

I often have an intuitive idea of when a poem is finished in terms of content and length but the editing and re-arrangement inside it can go on for months. Leaving it for a good length of time helps me a lot – to free up and be less attached to what’s there. I don’t have poet friends, or a group, to share this process with at the moment but have in the past found feedback from others invaluable. It was great to have Fergus and Ashleigh at VUP look carefully at my manuscript for Ocean and Stone.


What poets have mattered to you over the last year?

The two most important books for me in the last year or so – both as a reader and a writer – are The Great Enigma by Tomas Transtromer and Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück. I’ve been attached to Louise Glück’s poetry in the past and was thrilled to discover this one (Carcanet 2014) and find it so impressive. Without your question I mightn’t have noticed that these two books, though different, have the same attraction for me. Both poets use accessible language and strong short sentences developing a narrative that is clear but at the same time mysterious. I love that. They have quite different tones; Glück’s intense, sometimes threatening, Transtromer’s lighter, more surprising. I was strongly aware of Transtromer while writing the first sequence in my book ‘The lake, the bloke and the bike’ but I’m not sure if, or how, his poems might have influenced mine.


What activities enrich your writing life?

Almost everything I do has the potential I expect, but when I think of Ocean and Stone, I see how it reflects a number of my non-writing activities. For example, babysitting grandchildren, gardening, friends, walking on the beach, Tai Chi Chuan. The last sequence in Ocean and Stone , though triggered by the McCahon painting, has a number of the names of Tai Chi postures in it and I wanted the poem to be a kind of Tai Chi sequence even if the reader doesn’t recognize it at all.

There’s no doubt that I’m a poet whose material comes from her own world but in Ocean and Stone I enjoyed very much re-telling the Sumerian myths, forgetting myself, and entering stories from another time and place. Yet stories that have relevance still.


Victoria University Press page

NZ Book Council page

Poetry Shelf interviews Sarah Jane Barnett — writing is an act of contemplation for me


Photo credit: Matt Bialostocki


Sarah Jane Barnett has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and a PhD from Massey University. Her poetry has been published in New Zealand, Australia, and the US, and anthologised in Best New Zealand Poems, Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Godwit), and Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (Random House). Her debut collection A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue & Cry Press, 2012) was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Sarah was the recipient of the Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary and the Estate Phoebe Maunsell Scholarship. Her second collection WORK has just been launched by Hue & Cry Press. Sarah teaches creative writing at Massey University.

To coincide with the arrival of WORK, Sarah agreed to do an interview with Poetry Shelf.


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? Did you write as a child?

I’ve written for my whole life, in one way or another. I remember entering a poetry competition as a kid, and at primary school we’d illustrate poems. I also remember going for walks as a kid and making up silly poems in my head. I never thought I’d be a writer, though. My undergrad is in Fine Arts and then I studied Museum Studies, so I spent many years working in the public sector and writing on the side. I couldn’t look at my writing full on, in case it was truly awful (and some of it was). It was as though I was teaching myself to write behind my own back!

Something changed around the time I wrote the death row poems for my first collection. There was an inescapable humanity about the material. I had to fully engage with the work in order to respect the stories of the inmates and their victims. After that I quit my job and did a PhD at Massey. Now I’m overqualified so there’s no going back.


Your new collection, Work, lifted me off the page into realms of delicious contemplation – particularly in view of character and narrative. It grew in me. You say ‘these poems are works of fiction that draw on real people’ and that you ‘worked hard to be faithful to the facts while also allowing room for the poem.’ That poetic room is a fertile space (I want to write about it in my new book!) engendering countless fascinating relations. Were you aiming for particular kinds of poetic activity?

I like that you’ve used the word contemplation, because writing is an act of contemplation for me, and I hope my poems spark contemplation in a reader. I’m not sure that’s the same as ‘poetic activity.’ I know that I wanted the poems to be realistic, so set in the real world, with the sun rising at a real time and the flora and fauna being factual to a real landscape that any reader could visit. That was my way of honouring the people whose stories I drew from, and the landscapes they dwelt in, by making them as round and beautiful and burnished as I could.

But I also wanted the poem to be more than that – for it to be a fictional construction that explored what it is to be human. For each poem to be knowing that it was this imagined thing, created from language. In that sense each poem’s ‘realness’ is in being a poem. The main character in ‘Addis Ababa’ is a translator for this reason. Not only is it a nice metaphor for how he ‘translates’ his life from one country to another, but it was a way for me to explore how different languages, in his case Amharic and English, shape experience. It also points to how the poet ‘translates’ the world into poetry. I’m not sure where this preoccupation comes from, but I’m intrigued by the liminal space between fact and fiction (and, for that matter, poetry and prose). We all have stories that we tell ourselves in the on-going narrative of our life and identity. I think there’s value in questioning those stories.


I also loved ‘Glaciers’ and its multiple levels, overlaps and smudgings. It is a mysterious poem, a haunting poem – yet it embraces something utterly fundamental. Notions of family. I loved the different reactions that the poem drew from me; I was moved, perplexed and delighted in the myriad cryptic hinges. As I read the poem, and navigated the potent maternal traces, I wondered how being a mother affects your writing. Does it?

On a very practical level I have less time to write. At the start it was very difficult as he was a baby and I was finishing my PhD. There were some black days during that time (which is partially what ‘Glaciers’ is about). That said, having Sam actually helped my writing. I’ve had to learn how to stop the critical voice that fuels procrastination because he’s only in childcare 24 hours a week. That’s all I get! There’s no time to do it later.

At the moment I use the Pomodoro technique to get started. I set a timer for 25 minutes and write without stopping or editing. Then I have a five minute break (I write at home so usually I make a coffee or do the vacuuming or hang out the washing – such glamour!). That’s one ‘pomodoro’ and you’re meant to do four in a row before taking a 30 minute break. By the time I’m into my third pomodoro I’m away and can generally write for four hours at a stretch. So having Sam has been good for developing a stable and on-going writing practice. Also, and I’m going to get soppy here, he’s the most joyous and glorious human. He’s totally and entirely himself without reservation. Being around him makes me brave, which makes my writing brave as well.


What writers have mattered to you? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have been crucial in your development as a writer.

That’s such a hard question to answer. So many of my friends are writers, and talking to them often feels like one long amazing master class! I also have a super writer’s group which has been going since 2007 when we had a studio in an old zipper factory on Tennyson Street.

That said, WORK is dedicated to my doctoral supervisors Bryan Walpert and Jack Ross, and to my publisher Chloe Lane. So those three – they’re all writers alongside the other hats they wear – have been mentors to me in different but crucial ways. Bryan especially; he has mentored me for the last six years, first as a teacher at Massey, and then as an academic and a poet during my PhD. You need to be tough to work with Bryan. He knew I could go further with my work, but like most writers I had self doubt and a lack of clarity about what I wanted to say. He kept on pushing and pushing until I stepped up. He will hate me saying this because he dislikes gushiness and sentimentality, but he’s a brilliant mind and an outstanding teacher. I’ve learned more about poetry from him than anyone else. It’s also why I’ve continued to teach at Massey. I want to be able to do that for other writers.

In terms of poets, Robert Hass and Anne Kennedy have both had a huge influence on my work. I wrote my doctorate on Hass, and while I know he’s not to everyone’s taste, I’m still deeply moved by his work. I’m in a life long relationship with his first four collections! Anne Kennedy’s The Time of the Giants was one of those collections that shifted my world. She’s simply amazing. It was my first introduction to contemporary long form poetry and now I can’t stop.


Hue & Cry Press author page

Sarah’s blog




Poetry Shelf interviews Kerrin P Sharpe – I want the reader in my poems to be like a pilgrim

Kerrin P Sharpe-Poetry Shelf 2015    

 Kerrin P Sharpe lives in Christchurch where she teaches Creative Writing in schools and at The Hagley Writers’ Institute. In 2008 she was awarded The New Zealand Post Creative Writing Teacher’s Award from the Institute of Modern Letters. She was a student in Bill Manhire’s original writing composition class at Victoria University in 1976. Last year, Victoria University Press launched There’s A Medical Name for This. Her previous collection with VUP was entitled Three Days in a Wishing Well (2012). I gave her latest poetry collection a glowing review earlier this year (link below) — it was one of my standout poetry reads of 2014.


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

As a child I was raised on a rich diet of fairy tales and Enid Blyton stories. I loved Noddy and Big Ears and the stories of the Far Away Tree which my father read to me at bed time. I wrote stories and won a few competitions at school. What else did I do? Like most children I loved riding my bike and helping my brothers build treehouses.


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

At Wellington Teachers’ College (as it was then) and at Victoria University I discovered the poetry of Sam Hunt, Gary McCormack and Bill Manhire and they introduced me to a whole new world of words and images that I loved. I was fortunate to be taught at Victoria by Bill Manhire: it was he in the end who was responsible for lighting the poetry writing fire in me. He encouraged what became a lifelong passion for poetry and creative writing and in a way he was and is my poetry writing “hero”. One of the funny, eccentric quirks that I developed around this time (and which my husband still reminds me of) was wearing a special black hat upside down when I was writing poetry. It seemed to work and I did it for many years!


I love the way your poems can be strange and slightly surreal in part but always lay anchors down in an acute realness. What are some key things for you when you write a poem?

When I write I try to ask myself:

  1. What is this poem trying really trying to tell me?
  2. What is the ‘right’ point of view for this poem?
  3. For me every poem has a “trigger”- some idea, story or image or suchlike that triggers the creative process and commences the creation and birth to a new poem. But there is also a point in writing one of my poems that I ask myself, “Is it time now to move on from the ‘trigger’? Where is the life of the poem taking me?”


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Your latest collection, There’s a Medical Name for This, contains a number of poems that astonished me. Not often I say this! In my review I suggested it wasn’t just a handful of poems that did so, and that it was ‘not in a flaming extravagant way, but in ways that are at more of an alluring whisper. These poems are imbued with little droplets of incident, image, tension.’ Is there a book that has astonished you like this?

Yes there is Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector which does just that every time I go back to it. It is a collection of short stories and I feel the characters are always waiting there on standby for me to re-enter their astonishing and enchanting world. All I have to do is to open the collection and read one of the stories and I am back in their world discovering new things I had never even noticed before. It’s wonderful!


Characters are important in these poems. I see them as an amalgam of invention and autobiography and yet more than that. They are shoes to be filled. What did you want the characters to do in the poems? Where did you draw them from?

I believe characters are central to the success of a poem. I keep reminding myself that they want to be heard but their role is always to show, to hint, to suggest, even to foreshadow but never to “tell” – and sometimes I forget that – to my peril!

Often the characters in my poems are drawn from my past, people I knew many years ago who remain alive in my imagination. Sometimes my characters come from people I have read about; sometimes from figures in history (often obscure people whose lives interest and intrigue me). I often write in restaurants and I hear fascinating snippets of conversations that soon pop into one of my poems. I also often meet the most interesting characters in places like MacDonald’s; I’m amazed at the variety of people who come in and the meetings they have there. There are some fascinating characters that I just can’t wait to slip into my poems. They always get changed in the poems of course with different overlays of imagination but the original characters are so interesting.


I finished my review with these words: To read these poems is to be a pilgrim – tasting the sweet and sour bite of the land, feeling the lure of travel and elsewhere, entering the space between here and there that is utterly mysterious, facing a terrific moment of epiphany. Would you agree that this is poetry of movement and that movement highlights both light and dark?

I am so pleased you picked up on the pilgrim motif in many of my poems. I want the reader in my poems to be like a pilgrim, journeying through light and darkness ending up in some curious way like the Godwit in one of my poems, in the place where they originally began their journey but all the richer in experiences from the pilgrimage.


Subject matter is eclectic in this collection (ponies, illness, birds, snow, familial relations). Are there motifs and topics you find yourself returning to, again and again?

I like to steal from myself both lines and motifs and even topics. Themes like injustice and war are important to me. I also find myself returning again and again to the sea, the stars and to the horse.


I particularly loved the earthquake poem at the start of the book. How have the earthquakes affected your life as a writer, your process of writing?

The Christchurch earthquakes were a frightening time for all of us who went through them. They never seemed to stop; one after shock after another. It made me feel so impermanent and I found myself driven for a time to write with great urgency, almost as if every moment was a last chance.


What do you want readers to take away from these new poems?

Sometimes I would like to know why someone walks into a bookshop, picks up my book and reads it. What are they looking for and what do they find when they read my poems?

For me, I would like my readers to take away images and lines from my poems that creep into their minds and suddenly emerge when they least expect it. I would like the images and lines they take from my poems to make important connections with their own lives.


Do you have filters at work as you write? A need to conceal for the sake of the poem and for the sake of self?

With me poems generally spring from an initial “trigger” that gets the creative process going. As I write I begin to fictionalise situations very early on and “flashes of truth” emerge in the poem. Sometimes, as I write, I reverse situations so that they are the opposite of what might initially have triggered the poem. I suppose in a way these are all filters that are at work when I am writing. Some of the filters are consciously applied; others are perhaps more instinctive.


Do you think it makes a difference when the pen is held by a woman?

Men and women often see things differently and no doubt their writing expresses this, but in writing, the differences between men and women in my experience are less significant to writing than the differences that arise from our own unique individual experiences of life.


I gave you a glowing review of your latest book. How do you manage reviews that aren’t so positive (if you have ever had any!)?

Sometimes I think my poetry is perhaps a little unconventional both in the things I write about and my style of writing. I’m a little difficult to pin down and categorise as a writer – perhaps I’m a little eccentric! So it doesn’t entirely surprise me if a reader or critic finds my poetry a little unusual. Generally however reviewers have been very kind to me and that has been very reassuring.



You have taught Creative Writing at a number of age levels. What rewards do you reap from this experience?

I love teaching creative writing and have taught all levels from young children through to adults. Some of my happiest writing experiences have been with young children; we can all be a little crazy and creative together and I find their freshness and freedom with words so exciting. They enter new worlds so easily and with so much trust in a way that only children can do.


I agree! What irks you in poetry?

Sometimes I read poetry that doesn’t seem to be saying anything. It is almost as if it has been written to a formula; it has no inner passion or feeling. Sometimes I also see poems that are too obviously modelled on someone else’s writing – they don’t feel authentic.


What delights you?

I like images in a poem that move, grow and develop as you read further into the poem developing greater layers of meaning and resonance and constantly delighting you as you uncover greater and lovelier insights. Sometimes there are lines in a poem that stand out for you and which you come back to over and over again; they resonate in your mind and you find yourself repeatedly quoting the lines to yourself. It reminds you again of the power of poetry to open the door to a rich inner life where things are different.


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

I keep coming back to poets like Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Frankie McMillan, Vincent O’Sullivan, Sarah-Jane Barnett, Jenny Bornholdt and Siobhan Harvey. We have a lot of very good poets in New Zealand and many of them like the ones I have mentioned are so encouraging and supportive. Without them I would never have grown as a poet.


What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Over the last year I have especially enjoyed new collections from Caoilinn Hughes, Marty Smith and Chris Tse.


Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Three that spring to mind are:

Lifted by Bill Manhire

There Are No Horses in Heaven by Frankie McMillan

Your own book: Making Lists for Francis Hodgkins by Paula Green


What about poets from elsewhere?

I like:

Ruth Pradel – an English poet and academic who has a great gift for the analysis of poetry

Tomas Transtomer – A Swedish master I admire

Mary Ruefle – an American poet whose powerful imagery is outstanding

Ted Hughes – his interweaving of nature and poetry is still unsurpassed and his poetic craft is superb


Any other reading areas that matter to you?

I like reading about creative writing and how other writers go about writing poetry. I find it fascinating reading about their daily work routines, how they overcome “writing block”, what they think about the world of creative writing — in fact anything that gives me insights into the “secrets of the dark arts” of writing good poetry.

I have found Kevin Brophy’s Creative Writing and Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town two of the best books around and I keep coming back to them.


Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

I must admit I regularly break most of the rules! I don’t use capital letters and rarely use formal punctuation. However there are some “rules” I still abide by. I am careful with words that end in “-ing”. I rarely use “but”. I am vigilant about line lengths and line breaks. I still believe that the purpose of a poem is to “show” not “tell”.


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

Much to everyone else’s frustration I have no interest whatsoever in social media and I don’t use technology unless I really have to. I continue to handwrite my poems with sharpened pencils and writing journals!


The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

I’m happily married to my best friend and critic and we do a lot together. My four grown-up children and their lives and challenges are a huge part of my life. And of course my creative writing students bring joy and interest to each day.


Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

I always take Bill Manhire’s Selected Poems when I’m travelling or waiting somewhere. They keep me inspired and wanting to be a creative writer.


My review of There’s a Medical Name for This

Victoria University Press page



Poetry Shelf interviews Fiona Farrell – ‘Fiction seemed a kind of insult, really, to people experiencing such difficult or appalling narratives of fact’




Fiona Farrell is a much loved New Zealand author who writes in a variety of genres (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, mixed genre) and who is unafraid to test the boundaries of heart, intellect and craft whenever and however she writes. She has won awards: The Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction in 2007 and she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Literature in 2012. She has published numerous books: poetry, short fiction, novels and non fiction. I have always been a huge fan of her writing in all genres because, whatever she writes, it is always something that matters to me. It changes things for me both as a human and as a writer. Her latest book, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: A hundred ways to read a city (Vintage, 2015), seemed like a good chance to ask some questions.

This book is simply astonishing. It is a book warm and sharp, so beautifully crafted, that depends upon an astute mind at work, a heart that travels and cares, ears that attend,  eyes that reap images, experiences. It is a book of Christchurch; a book that signposts the city of the past, navigates the city of the present and dreams the city of the future. Both poetic and political, the protagonist Christchurch enacts a layering of cities. In this mind and that mind. From this mouth and that mouth. Here and there. It is an essential read, not just in the way it draws you into the unspeakable (a city devastated), but in the way it reminds you of what it means to live in communities. If our media (in part) is reluctant to sustain deep, keen and rigorous analysis of the ideologies and the structures that shape us, then thank heavens for a book like this. I love the fact that when Fiona embarks on a project she is not sure whether she can pull it off. That to me underlines her courage and her tenacity. If I recommend one book this year, this is it.


The Interview:


The title of your new book, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: A hundred ways to read a city, brought to mind Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Calvino’s narrator, Marco Polo, seduces the ear of Kublai Khan with tales of marvellous cities, yet we discover these cities are the overlap of one city, Venice. A city cannot be reduced to a singular version. At the heart of your book, and it is a book with a beating heart, lies Christchurch. It is a Christchurch in physical pieces because of the catastrophic earthquake, but it is also a city in cerebral and emotional pieces, in both past and future versions, in the minds of the inhabitants. Was it a struggle to move from your embryonic starting point to the structure you choose?

I began by writing a multitude of pieces, exactly the way I would set out on writing a poem, or really any piece: just writing what was most pressing that morning. It felt particularly apt for this book as it was about structures that had fallen in pieces anyway – solid things like chimneys, but also abstract things like a feeling of security. The difficult part was assembling all those pieces into a coherent whole.


At one point you write, ‘For awhile after the quakes, there was the phantom city.’ A bit like the ache of a missing limb. What I love about your book is the way you have been the loving hunter and gatherer who pulls together some of these the missing versions. What cities have been lost? What cities have been gained?

Memory takes a while to overtake reality, I find. I remember talking to someone who had broken a leg on a tramping trip, but who managed to walk out to the road end, before feeling the most excrutiating pain. It seems as if shock can bestow a period of unreality which helps people continue to function until they have time and space to fall apart. The city lost was an assembly of routines around specific structures: walks to the cinema, or to visit friends, the way into town, the way home. The city gained is a place of surprise: I swing between enjoying the surprises of not quite knowing where the shoe shop or the bookshop or the lawyer’s office is, that makes a kind of board game of going into town, and missing the routines and structures of the past.


To me this book is vital and necessary; a book we should all read because it not only casts a light on the consequences of the earthquake but on how we shape cities as much as cities shape us. Fiona, you do this through a layering of voice. I would like to explore some of these. First there is the documentary voice. This book comes out of research but that research seems to have taken many forms. Importantly, it strengthens both the intelligence and the heart of the book. What kind of research did you embark upon?

I read and talked and walked or drove about. Kept boxfuls of clippings, read anything that felt as if it might comment on the situation, talked to anyone and everyone: the stories simply poured in. And of course I was in the city constantly, attending to my flat and its repair or rebuild and simply adapting to new circumstances in which to live an ongoing life: going to movies after a year or so when there was a cinema in which I felt comfortable; visiting friends in their motels or temporary homes, or in the places away from the city to which they had moved or in their homes once they had been repaired; finding the shops that I have always used as they resurfaced in other locations, or substitutes for the ones that ceased trading.


And then there is a narrative voice at work here delivering a narrative momentum that generates story (of a city, of many cities). Did you see yourself at some point telling stories?

Yes – definitely. Story telling is primary. It’s how we frame our lives.


The second part of this project takes the form of a novel. It will be fascinating to see how the one changes the way you see the other. What can you do in the fiction version that you couldn’t do in this version? Or vice versa?

I see this first book as the bedrock: the foundation. I haven’t felt like writing fiction during these past five years. Fact simply eclipsed it. Fiction seemed a kind of insult, really, to people experiencing such difficult or appalling narratives of fact. Why make things up, when such stories were all around? The facts were big and more than enough to occupy the imagination. I had never realized how very egocentric the action of writing fiction is: I knew it had evolved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as an expression of a period of intense individualism, but I hadn’t truly felt that until now. Fiction seemed frivolous, self-indulgent. Poetry on the other hand felt valid: there was a tradition there of elegies and laments to validate the writing of poems. Non-fiction too was validated by the long tradition of recording facts. There was a sense of being the eyewitness, noting things for future readers.

But more recently, I’ve begun to miss fiction. In fiction, I can bring together a vast mass of disparate detail – because there are literally thousands of stories here, in archives and online and unrecorded but part of individual spoken history – into a single narrative which will I hope – and this is only hope because it might not work at all: I won’t know till it’s all finished –convey the feeling of being here. So the novel will be poised on top of this basis of fact, and together I hope they will form a document about being a citizen of a small New Zealand city in this era. That’s the plan, at any rate.


Wonderful! There is a strong political voice at work here. Insistent, incisive, astute, courageous. It embraces the personal as much it navigates the minefields of bureaucracy and government, and is always prepared to protest. Earthquake politics are astonishing.

Catastrophe sharpens perception. The politics of this event have exposed divisions that have existed all along in this country and are not particular to Christchurch, but here they have become evident in extreme circumstances.


And then there is the autobiographical voice. In writing through the filter of your own experience what discoveries did you make?

I write always to explain things to myself, no matter what the medium. My principal motive in writing the book was to try and cope with bewilderment. Seneca’s essay was written because he felt that one way to attend to fear was through understanding of the mechanics of natural events, so I picked up on that.


I wonder, too if the voice of the poet is hiding in the pen. As soon as I started reading, I was drawn into a poetic fluency. The writing is utterly beautiful at the level of the sentence. Sentences are little cascades that accrue thought and detail in their mesmerising movement. How important was the sentence?

I’m not aware of crafting sentences. I’m just trying to be clear, to myself in the first instance. If they sound good, that’s a plus! I’m pleased they do.


This marriage of thought and physical detail is a triumph in the book, yet it also resonates within the city: ‘Political theory is finding expression in bees and trees and streets and corrugated iron and stone as the frontier oppidum grows beyond the frame, up the slopes of the volcanic hills and across the plain.’ Can you comment on the way theory is laying down roots in Christchurch’s real world? Do you think at times there is a scandalous gap between earthquake ideology and the everyday world?

I quote Naomi Klein who was quoting Friedman and the opportunities for capitalism during disaster. Christchurch is a perfect example of neoliberal theory – insofar as I understand it – in action. This is what disaster capitalism actually feels like on the ground.


Does the media unpick these ideologies for us successfully?

I doubt that there is much in the book that would come as a surprise to anyone who has been living here and reading the Press every day. Elsewhere however, newspapers and tv, with the exception of John Campbell, have seemed intent on creating a PR fairytale of national wellbeing, a rockstar economy, and boundless opportunity in the south. Why and how this is happening would be the subject for another whole book. My short answer to this question would be ‘no’.


You explore the narratives of street signs as though each sign becomes a little discovery to which you were previously immune as you drove or walked past. What other discoveries stood out for you?

How very flat the city is. The buildings gave the illusion of height. But no – this was and still is, a swamp.


The section on Acquilla, and its restoration plans, is such an eye opener. The way brick by fallen brick, the city is being lovingly restored. When you move as reader from there to what is happening in Christchurch it is heartbreaking. What frustrates you most about the restoration plans for Christchurch? What gives you hope?

I don’t think there is any point in ‘might have beens…’ In any situation – personal or civic. You must deal with what is. What frustrates me most about the rebuilding of the city has been the way that central Government has constantly undermined the operation of the City Council, the transfer of absolute power to a single government minister whose personal aesthetic is clearly determining the shape of the city, the waste of money gathered from taxpayers throughout the country on rugby stadiums and convention centres for which local ratepayers are going to be paying for decades, shall I go on? I’ve tried to talk about it in calmer, more reasoned terms in the book, as I can degenerate into rant fairly quickly. Hope? Well, there are so many creative and visionary people around and once the big boys have made their pile and abandoned the sandpit, they’ll come out and restore beauty to the heart.


You mentioned  your love of poetry so let’s talk about poetry for a bit.


Your poetry represents a unique and essential voice in New Zealand. There is the musical lift of each line, the surprise, the world brought closer in luminous detail. These are poems that matter at the level of being human. I am an immense fan. Were you able to write poems while working on this project?

No – I find I can’t write poetry in the same breath as prose.


What are key things for you when you write a poem?

The key thing is feeling. That’s what makes me write a poem – an overwhelming rush of feeling.


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

I love switching between genres, changing pace.


I loved the shift between poetry and prose in The Broken Book. Some critics were irked by this. Not me. It utterly worked. Enacted in a way the stuttering disconnections of a broken city. Since I first picked up a book by you (The Skinny Louie Book) I have admired your ability to push boundaries, not for the sake of breaking (as Virginia Woolf once said) but for the sake of creating. Are you drawn to smudging writing boundaries?

I like ‘making’ a book, as an artefact, something crafted, an object. So The Broken Book pleases me with its little squiggles of aftershocks and the shorter lines of the poems interrupting the blocks of prose.  I like the playfulness of writing, even about serious subjects.


What irks you in poetry?

Incomprehension. I don’t mean that everything has to be spelled out, but that as a reader, I want to be able to see why the poem might have been constructed as it has.


What delights you?

Playfulness. The sense of words drawing attention to themselves.


Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Bill Manhire’s 100 NZ Poems, your 150 NZ Love Poems, and Essential NZ Poems/Facing the Empty Page (edited by Harvey, Norcliffe and Ricketts).


What poets, here or abroad, have sparked you in some kind of way?

Medieval poets – Irish poems like Pangur Ban or the Old Woman of Beare, or the English monk writing ‘this passed away, this also may’. I have found that line enormously comforting in a variety of situations – not during a Viking raid, thank god.


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

Yes. Absolutely. I wrote poems throughout my childhood. Still have the collection in a school notebook that I compiled when I was about 13.  I also liked riding ponies, reading and building huts.


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

I guess Richard Burton reading Under Milkwood and the poems of John Donne. He had such a melting voice.


Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing?

I stopped writing poetry at university. Began writing essays and theses which I loved and didn’t write a thing till my dad died when I was 35.  That’s when I started writing again.


Do you think your poetry writing has changed over time?

Not really. I find I keep coming back to the same kinds of themes. Life is a tangled endless thread, I’ve discovered.


Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

No rules. Not in any form of writing. Just experiment and see what works.


I think that is why I love your writing so much in all genres. The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

Sitting quietly on my own in a hut. Sitting raucously in the company of friends. Going for long walks – for weeks on end, ideally.


Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

The one closest to hand, just to see what was there.


Fiona Farrell’s web site

Pod casts

NZ Book Council author page

Penguin Random House page


The Berlin Writer’s Residency: Poetry Shelf Interviews Hinemoana Baker – I need to feel surprised by the language but not distracted by it.


Hinemoana Baker  Album cover finished  waha_front__71664.1407673414.1280.1280

Photo credit: Robert Cross

Hinemoana Baker is an acclaimed Wellington-based poet who was recently awarded the Berlin Writer’s Residency. She descends from the South Island’s Ngāi Tahu and from the North Island’s Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa. She also has English and Bavarian lineage. Victoria University Press has published her three poetry collections: mātuhi | needle (2004), kōiwi | kōiwi (2010) and  waha | mouth (2014). She has produced five CDs of poetry and music. Hinemoana was the Queensland Poet in Residence, has participated in the Iowa International Creative Writing Programme and was Victoria University’s Writer in Residence in 2014. She is currently convening a Poetry Workshop and with Tina Makereti co-convenes  a Māori and Pasifika Writing Workshop at IIML in Wellington.


Congratulations on receiving the 2015 Berlin residency Hinemoana. This seems like a golden opportunity to talk about poetry and writing, but first, what projects do you plan to work on while you are there?

Thank you very much Paula, I really appreciate the congratulations. It still doesn’t quite seem real yet, but I’m booking my tickets this afternoon, so it must be, right?? In Berlin I hope to finish a new collection of poetry. As is the way of writing projects, I will also be continuing work on a family memoir called ‘Dear Mother Basillise’, which is proving to be an even more gigantic undertaking than I had thought at first.


Poets often suggest writing a poem is an act of discovery as opposed to the rendition of a predetermined plan. Being in a foreign city is also an act or discovery but it may involve a bit of planning. What sorts of places and experiences attract you?

Several things. I spent a week or so there in 2012, and I was compelled by the history of the city, and fell in love with its present-day self, too. The markets, the many dogs on the streets, the public transport, the way people seem to walk so much slower than they do here.

Also, my mother’s ancestors are from Oberammergau in Bavaria, so travelling there will be much easier from Berlin. I visited once in my 20s, but I want to go again. It’s near the Black Forest, and it’s where the residents have staged the Passion Play every ten years since 1634, in return for god having spared them from the plague. The play brings many tourists to the village. The script has a history of anti-semitism, though some changes have been made to that over the years. I feel a million miles away from a place like Oberammergau, in almost every way, and yet my close ancestors sailed here from there (via Hamburg).

I am keen to experience the arts culture of Berlin, music and poetry and sonic art and burlesque and everything else. I want to join the Berlin Pop Choir and do tango. I want to eat grilled fish sandwiches at the market every weekend and drink Weiss Bier. I want to bike everywhere. Walk around in snow. Visit friends (and hopefully woo publishers) in Italy, London, Manchester. Drift through the Christmas Markets and museums and art galleries. Be anonymous.


What effect does travel have upon your writing? Can you write on the move? Or do you absorb and store and write later when it comes to poetry?

I write best when I’m on the move. Trains work best for me. I think it’s something to do with there being boundaries around the length and nature of the experience. And someone else is driving.


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

I wrote poems and stories and even a few chapters of a novel as a young child. I don’t remember being really transformed by poetry until I was a teenager, though. Alistair Campbell and Fleur Adcock and Hone Tuwhare and Leonard Cohen, I memorised poems and said them aloud to myself until I cried. I had a wonderful English teacher at Waimea College who really encouraged my own writing.

I read a lot of Enid Blyton and Doctor Seuss as a kid, and I turned out ok. I was pretty much an only child, so I played a lot on my own or with my next-door-neighbour skater-boy friends. I liked skateboarding. I liked music. I became addicted to Louis Armstrong at a young age, and then Kate Bush when I turned 12.


What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

So many! I’m going to choose three here (refer to comment about time and boundaries above). Lynn Jenner – her latest book, Lost and Gone Away, is sustaining me at the moment. A person on Facebook whose user name isn’t, I don’t think, her real name: Hangi Pants. Heh heh. She posts poems in her feed once a month or so and I hang out for those days. It’s such good stuff. And Bill Manhire. If I had written ‘Hotel Emergencies’ I would probably just put my pen down and spend the rest of my life feeling smug. Thank god Bill hasn’t done that.


I agree on ‘Hotel Emergencies!’ Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

OK three different poets this time. The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow by Geoff Cochrane. Star Waka by Robert Sullivan. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt by Tusiata Avia.


What about poets from elsewhere?

Sharon Olds, Joyelle McSweeney and Joy Harjo.


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

My friend and art mentor Siân Torrington has begun writing more alongside her visual art. Her courage and determination towards freedom are things I’d like to emulate. Also her work ethic. I have been very moved by Rilke and Pablo Neruda, whose work I’ve only really started to investigate in the last couple of years.


I love the way your poetry is anchored in the real world in a way that makes physical detail luminous yet does so much more. This is what I wrote in my review of your most recent collection (waha | mouth): ‘your poetic melodies remind us that there are other layers of reality embedded here, layers that sing and tremble in the candle light — joy, pain, recognition, trust, narratives that we inherit and carry with us.’ What are some key things for you when you write a poem?

I have to feel like the poem is being co-written in a way – by me and by the poem itself. I need to feel surprised by the language but not distracted by it. I want to feel after I’ve written it that it has taught me something about the nature of life, or love, or the heart, or politics, or power, or just language.


Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?

No, not really. But I see myself as a person who is acutely aware of the dynamics of power. I am not as well-versed in local or global history and politics as I would like to be, but I’m constantly learning and reading. When that learning moves me and/or transforms me, it will no doubt make its way into my poems in some way.


In 99 Ways into NZ Poetry, I talked about the way the opening poem of your debut collection mātuhi | needle acts as a mihi. It invites us as readers across the threshold into the meeting ground that is poetry but that is also a surrogate marae. Now I see your poetry (as a whole) laying down invitations. Labels are tricky things but do you see yourself as a Māori poet? What differences does your Māori inheritance make to your writing?

I think the one thing my Māori self contributes to my writing, whether I like it or not, is a keen sense that there are feelings everywhere. People and places are alive and sensate and usually in some state of pain or longing. There’s a saying I heard once, I can’t remember where, but it was someone indigenous speaking about someone else ‘acting as if she has no relatives’. My relatives are everywhere, and not just because I have a big extended family.


The titles of your collections juxtapose English and Māori underlining these two personal lineages. Do you see this relationship as a rope (entwined, frayed, strong)? A bridge with different rhythms of traffic?

I’m not going to do it any more, this bi-lingual title thing. I’ve done what I wanted to do with it. Which is to, somehow, lock the different voices together for a moment.


You are a terrific musician and performer of your work. It shows, too, with the writing on the page. There is an exquisite cadence that draws upon silence as much as it does the shifting melodies. Do you write poetry as musician as much as you do as wordsmith?

I think in the end the thing I’m most interested in is sound. Adding meaning to the mix is a bonus, but it’s hard to keep meaning contained, and it can get a bit out of hand. I hope to make good and interesting sounds in people’s heads and in the air with what I write on the page.


Do you think your writing has changed over time?

Yes, but only in that I’ve gotten more confident.


I love the way you are unafraid of heart. Your poetry has a beating pulse that is both warm and inviting and utterly human. As a reader there are electric connections between my heart and the heart of the poem. How does heart matter to you as you write?

I try and make poems that matter, in the sense that people might care about them, because they might get that heart feeling from them. What you’ve said here is very honouring, Paula.


Is there a single poem or two in your collections that particularly resonates with you?

‘Rope’, because I didn’t even hear the ‘rape’ rhyme until a few hours after I’d written it. And ‘Magnet Bay’, because it was the last holiday I had with my ex-partner Christine, and I remember walking that beautiful land with her and playing taonga pūoro in the sun.


Your two books are beautiful to behold. How important is it to you that a poetry book is an object of beauty in view of its ‘look.’

I like a good cover image! And I like the book’s arrangement and font to be reader-friendly and readily available.


As my review attests, I loved your last collection. Did you make any discoveries as you wrote it?

You’re very kind. I discovered as I wrote it that it is very hard for me to write about things as they are happening. Sometimes I can do it – I wrote the Terrorism poem in kōiwi while that appalling crap was still going on. But mostly I have to wait. The experiences I had in the years writing waha will probably turn up in my next collection.


In the blurb for this book you wrote: ‘I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.’ I adore the comparison of the act of reading to holding the light of candle to a poem where something will always remain in the dim shadows, barely sighted, inaudible. How do the light and dark of poetry matter to you?

Like all the binaries – tension/release, light/dark, sad/happy – it’s the dance they do that makes art, for me. If you believe in binaries, that is.


What irks you in poetry?



What delights you?



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

I don’t know if it’s a key part, but it seems to be an unavoidable part of my process. There’s some kind of off-balance precarious posture I manage to achieve between giving up altogether and re-working obsessively. It never feels comfortable or certain, and it never feels reproducible. After finishing a poem, I’m often certain, I’ll never be able to write another one.


The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

Walking the wild coastline of Wellington, and her streets and waterfront, her Town Belt. Visiting with other artists’ work whenever I can. I teach creative writing sometimes, and that always makes me fall in love with language all over again.


Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

Cardinal rules, no. Guidelines, yes. They’re really the same as for other kinds of writing. Show don’t tell. Concrete images. Verbs and nouns are often more powerful than adjectives. Etc. But there are some that pertain to poetry in particular I suppose – especially around line breaks and stanzas etc. That said, if I did have a cardinal rule, it would probably be ‘Don’t publish a poem your writing group hasn’t seen.’ One day I might break this rule but it’s served me well so far.


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



Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

Something by Robert Hass – I’d have lots of time for re-reading, and Robert Hass very much rewards re-reading…



Hinemoana’s web site

Victoria University Press page

Victoria University page

NZ Book Council Author page



Poetry Shelf interviews David Eggleton — Poetry is a kind of verbal tic; it runs in parallel with consciousness


Photo credit: F. J. Neuman

David Eggleton is a poet, reviewer and non fiction writer. His books include: Here on Earth: the Landscape in New Zealand Literature, (Craig Potton Publishing, 1999); Seasons: Four Essays on the New Zealand Year, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2001); Ready to Fly: the Story of New Zealand Rock Music, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2003); Into the Light: a History of New Zealand Photography, (Craig Potton Publishing, 2006); and Towards Aotearoa: A Short History of Twentieth Century New Zealand Art (Reed/Raupo, 2008). His poetry collections include: Rhyming Planet, (Steele Roberts, 2001); Fast Talker, (Auckland University Press, 2006); Time of the Icebergs, (Otago University Press, 2010); and The Conch Trumpet (Otago University Press, 2015). He is the current Editor of Landfall, and of Landfall Review Online. He lives in Dunedin.

To celebrate the arrival of his new poetry collection, The Conch Shell, David kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf.


‘Stone clacks on stone

so creek lizards slither,

runnels slip through claws,

each cloud’s a silver feather.’

from ‘Raukura’ in The Conch Trumpet


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

I had very little to do with books as a child, apart from prolonged weekly exposure to the King James Bible. However, it was a rich, sensual and even privileged environment, with wide exposure to a variety of cultures and a strong sense of the carnivalesque about everyday life. My father at that time was a soldier ant, when the last Pacific colonies were gaining independence, and then there were my mother’s ancestral voices and her extended family. This idyll was abruptly terminated when our family relocated permanently from Fiji to New Zealand. It was a bit like the post-Edenic Fall, though gradually I became aware of a different kind of richness, including eventually the world of the library.

In early adolescence my options veered between seminary school and reform school, though neither eventuated. I began to understand that truth, social truth at least, is not absolute but institutional and class-bound, and you need a ticket to get in — but if you are a poet you can construct your own truth. ‘I am the shadows my words cast’, as Octavio Paz wrote.

My early literary influences, besides the Bible, included Phantom comics, church music, gospel choirs and listening to pop music on the radio: an auditory riot. The Bible contained fascinating and troubling verses: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe…’

Meantime, living in South Auckland there were not the quiescent, somnolent afternoons of lawn tennis such as you might have found in the leafy avenues of the inner suburbs, but rather the lingering smell of tanneries and abattoirs — offal being boiled down at the freezing works, corned beef being cooked for shipment to the Islands. This became partly associated in my mind with the lives of saints and martyrs I had already spent time reading about: believers being boiled in oil by non-believers, and so forth. There was also much bellowing in the streets and the roar of motorcycles.


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

I got interested in writing at high school, my first published efforts appearing in the Aorere College literary magazine. Around the same time, I was discovering Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, Gunter Grass — some of these were on the school curriculum.

Then I got immersed in the American Beats and their ‘action writing’: Go! Howl! On the Road! I heeded the call; I dropped out of school and tried to get a job on a cargo ship. I wasn’t taken on, so I got a job in a South Auckland carpet warehouse instead. Kerouac’s road novels were a word-spattered canvas wide as America and seemed related to the Ab-Ex canvases of the artist Jackson Pollock, whose paintings I also got interested in.

Energised, I sought to emulate the yackety-yak spoken word rhythms of Jack Kerouac, the biting wisecracks of William Burroughs and the vatic yawp of Allen Ginsberg in my own screeds of verse. And then there was the one-man typographical liberation front of e.e. cummings: ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town and down they forgot as up they grew…’

I was pretty much unaware of New Zealand writing, apart from the plummy-voiced Bruce Mason, who had visited our school out in the sticks with his one-man theatrical show.


I remember when you were awarded London Time Out’s Street Entertainer of the Year in 1985. From that time you have gained a solid reputation as a performance poet. Do you still see yourself as a performance poet? Did the award alter the path of poet for you at all?

Well, 1985 was New Zealand’s special moment in the sun, with David Lange roaming the globe as a kind of No Nukes! ambassador, and Keri Hulme winning the Booker Prize. There was a big travelling Maori art exhibition, plus the Rainbow Warrior bombing, the Flying Nun catalogue. All that kind of created a climate where things New Zild were of interest in the UK, and I was able to get on and stay on the cabaret circuit at the time.

Performance for me became a poetry vehicle and there was a national consciousness locally it tapped into: grass roots, flax roots, ground up, underground, public assemblies to hear, watch, attend to, what poets and other performers were saying — and maybe have all this on at a variety night down at the community hall.

Things have changed, become more sophisticated, more ironic, more knowing. Perhaps there is less of a communal thing now and more of a tightly-organised, clearly-defined niche market, maybe even a gentrification of poetry scenes — where the confessional genre and the misery memoir have top billing, everyone competing to prove that they have the tiniest violin in the world and they know how to play it. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the Dadaist nature of the wilder poetry performance. The novelist Henry James said about a poetry reading by Robert Browning that, if the audience didn’t understand his poems he seemed to understand them even less: ‘He reads them as if he hated them and would like to bite them to pieces.’ That sounds like my kind of event.


I love the way your poems absorb and replay the world in a dazzling eruption of detail, hallucinogenic at times. It is like standing in the street or bush just after it has rained. Luminous. Invigorating. Yet as much as each poem is an aural feast, there is an engagement with the world on multiple levels. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Incantation, cadence, rhythm, pacing, matter more to me than formal metre stress and scansion. I like overgrown gardens and rainforest: that which is lush. I like absurdity and contradiction as closer to real experience rendered more accurately. In poetry, arguably, lexical meaning is less important than rhythm and emotionally-charged sound, which have their own echo-chamber allusiveness.

All that said, I also like psychedelic dream-fever imagery, and teasing evocations of mythical ancestors and invented traditions: invented traditions which engage with canonical poems, the poems which begin, as Yeats put it, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, but then become marble, monumental.

Poems are generated in many different ways, of course. Sometimes a poem might begin as a psychotherapeutic notion, as automatic writing, where as long as you keep writing you eventually find the solution to whatever it is that ails you, psychosomatically or existentially. Other poems may be less fluent; instead they are painstakingly assembled, built up like a movie in an editing suite from many separate images in order to create a mood, an atmosphere, a climate.

What one does not want is what Yeats (again!) described as ‘the stale odour of spilt poetry’: we want the fresh bouquet of wild flowers — or of hothouse blooms transfigured. Poetry remains in the service of the subversive. That’s its power. The magical thinking of the ancient gods has been replaced by a future of junk science, which explains that emotions are only neuropeptides attaching to receptors and stimulating an electrical charge on neurons. Easy-peasy. How might a poet extract a poem from this revised reality? That’s the challenge.


Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?

Poetry is politics by other means; anthologies prove this. But I think what you are getting at is the idea of poets on the barricades leading the revolution. OK, the revolution may not be televised, as Gil Scott-Heron prophesied in his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox back in the 1970s, but these days it’s corporatised and monetised. As Arundhati Roy has pointed out, in the era of the free market, ‘free speech’ has become a valuable commodity, too valuable to be wasted on the underclass. Poetry must find ways to remain anarchic, not for sale. As the Zen poem has it: ‘Sitting quietly doing nothing/ Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.’

My favourite poets include the Nightingale and the Skylark: Keats and Shelley — not yet Pixar characters — and Shelley undoubtedly was a revolutionary bard who believed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Likewise, William Blake was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t arrested and beheaded because they considered him mad. Nowadays we consider him a visionary.

I am inspired by the poetry of witness: that of Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Georg Trakl, John Clare, Pablo Neruda. These poets spoke truth to power and sometimes paid with their lives.

New Zealand is a relatively lucky country, but it also means, I think, that we have an obligation to speak out against injustice, though not necessarily through simple polemics. Poetry, said Auden, makes nothing happen — well, many poets would disagree. Poetry can help generate social earthquakes — or be part of them in subtle ways. Globalisation is all subtle interconnections.

One poem in my new book was inspired by the sight of a superyacht belonging to a Russian oligarch in Auckland’s Viaduct Basin, an impressive white vessel designed by Philippe Starck. I stayed on the wharf for a while, and revisited, watching the comings and goings on this superyacht, and then researched the background — or rather added to what I already knew. That’s the starting point for a poem, which is not so much about Putin’s Russia as about the approved neo-liberal narratives of today and the warped truths which seem to accompany unbridled power. Yet nothing is spelt out — the reader must surmise, or suspect.

Pablo Neruda said that a poem is a net, and in a net it’s not just the strings that count but also the air, or the ocean, that escapes through them. To which I might add about my poem that while ‘knowledge’ is steady and cumulative and a satisfying form of story-telling, ‘information’ is random and miscellaneous and frustrating. My poetry sometime plays around with these twinned perceptions. For, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘the poet knows he speaks adequately only when he speaks somewhat wildly, not with the intellect alone, but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.’

The fact is that the black rain of tragic images is unending. The poet must put out his bucket and collect enough, and then endeavour to make sense of them; find a way to transform the surplus into poetry. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry said Auden of Yeats, rather contradicting his other statement that poetry makes nothing happen. The ambitious poet is a voyant, a seer still, despite the scoffers, disdainful of rolling up their sleeves, spitting on their hands and going to work. Delmore Schwarz was right: in dreams begin responsibilities.

From the frantic antics of the nuclear meltdown to the shirtfronting of the financial meltdown, there’s plenty happening politically that cries out for poems. Then, too, as New Zealanders we need to constantly catechise our past in poetry so as to attest to our grasp of identity. Because this collective past, the stuff of song, ballad and pontificating political speech, is only approximately remembered, or else only partly told. Different people will tell, for example, the story of the Treaty of Waitangi in skewed fashion, laying emphasis on different details, and carry this away as poetic myth. The poet of conscience searches out social stigmas, personal stigmas, linguistic stigmas — the difficult subjects — and finds new ways to address them.


Do you think we have a history of thinking and writing about the process of poetry? Any examples that sparked you? Have you done this?

Yes, of course we have a tradition of thinking about what poetry is. Manifestos, prefaces, books and essays by Allen Curnow, A.R.D. Fairburn, Alan Brunton, Riemke Ensing, Kendrick Smithyman, Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Murray Edmond, C.K. Stead and Robert Sullivan are amongst those I value most. A writer is a descendent of other writers. I’ve written a lot in response to reading other poets; that is, to specific instances, but not manifestos or generalising, barrow-pushing commentaries.

New Zealand has its own quirky bicultural literary history. There’s also a strong puritanical tradition, nowhere so pronounced, I think, as in the repressed verses of Charles Brasch. He reminds me of what Anthony Burgess once said about himself: that he was so much of a puritan that he couldn’t describe a kiss without blushing. That said, there’s a value in circumspection, in euphemism, in artful disguise: telling by other means.

Actually, I think that all the theorising stacks up to mere post-rationalisation, to temperaments attempting to influence posterity, whereas, as John Steinbeck put it: ‘Time is the only critic without ambition’. Instead, I would argue that we learn most by example — the example of careful noticers, and for me one of the influential is Katherine Mansfield, still one of our best, perhaps our best, echo-locators: ‘All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground, it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces.’ So much menace, so close to home.


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

It would take a book to answer this question adequately. I’ve read the work of around 1000 poets over the past year, and all of them mattered at the time of reading. To read a poem properly is to engage with it, alertly. Listing names and poems that grabbed me would be counter-productive, because each would require an explanation of the encounter: what the sense and what the sensibility? Deconstruction at warp speed cannot happen in this format.


What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Currently my favourite New Zealand poet, in the terms of the poet I am thinking most about, is Robin Hyde, followed by Ursula Bethell and A.R.D. Fairburn. So many clues, or soundings, to where we are now lie in the inter-war years. Other than that, I pretty much read everybody.


Do you think your writing has changed over time?

My own feelings about this are, necessarily, extremely subjective, but I would advance a cautious perhaps. According to Heraclitus, everything flows and all movement is history. William Blake said that without contraries there is no progression. In short: change is the only constant in life; one writes not as one was, but as one is.

Certainly the cultural climate has changed, and my corporeal self has changed. The typical New Zealand afternoon of the recent past had all the excitement of a damp tea towel and all the urgency of a dripping tea urn, with somewhere the smell of scones burning. Somehow this no longer seems applicable. Along with Denis Glover though, I do not dream of Sussex downs or quaint old English towns — I think of what may yet be seen in Johnsonville and Geraldine.


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

All of my writing is really just personal essays by other means — that is, if you consider the personal essay a form of self-correction, a form of self-contestation, an interior monologue conducted in solitude in preparation for being presented in public. Otherwise, the prescriptions of each genre apply, distinctly.

However, in my view, literature is or should be a site of struggle, no matter what the genre. Each mode is always inherently in a state of primal conflict about purpose and meaning. Otherwise it is moribund, mere cliché-recycling.

There are elements of hybridity, the mongrel, in my writing. The mixed bag, the medley, the odd job lot, the tall order; that’s what I’ve ended up doing. To pluck out just one continuity: I have an overarching interest in the iconoclastic — how might we tear all these false idols down. And aren’t they all false anyway? So there you go; we’re always casting about for the new, the next, supreme fiction.



The detail you collect makes place so vital — and that place emerging is particular, local, recognisable. For me, the poems transcend poetic exercise or form as they establish contact with what it might or might not mean to be human. These poems tick with humanity. Is a sense of home an important factor as you write? Or connections with humanity?

The Rumanian philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote that you don’t inhabit a country, you inhabit a language, and as Caribbean poet Derek Walcott pointed out, when you inhabit a language you enter into a relationship with its imperial width. A language is not a place of contemplative retreat or escape; it’s a site of struggle. Struggle for control, or, to use Kendrick Smithyman’s formulation, ‘a way of saying’. So, it starts with the language, which works on homegrown imagery. As Ian Wedde once neatly put it, my poetry is preoccupied with ‘growth into location’. Not just that, but this regionalism reflects the society’s obsession with where it is: Anne French’s one big waka, Robert Sullivan’s hundred small waka.

This, in a way, is ‘small country syndrome’ and Dylan Thomas wrote something eloquently pertinent to this sense of us against the world in a letter to his wife: ‘the world is unbalanced unless, in the very centre of it, we little mutts stand together all the time in a hairy, golden, more-or-less unintelligible haze of daftness.’

By not living in exile, by living here, the whole past stays in the pulsating present. Wherever I turn, I see reminders of things past, of ghost trails, phantoms. As I write this, autumn rains are bashing at the windows in silver-grey lights as the furthermost fringe of Cyclone Pam brushes past. That’s what being here means to me. That and folk memories: cow cockies used to tighten Number 8 wire with a strainer until it literally sang when it was flicked. Now whole rugby stadiums hum that same tune.

This is a land of miraculous icons, a poet’s task is to discover and celebrate them before the local version of the Taliban, often in the form of a property developer, moves in and breaks them up.


What irks you in poetry?

I’m not sure that any poem irks me. Rather, the challenge is: what is the poet doing? Has it been achieved? Sometimes poems feel hollow, or are expressed in sentiments that have a breathy earnestness, yet you know that they know that you know they haven’t got there and earned it. Kate Clanchy wrote recently in the UK Poetry Review about a new collection of poems by Ruth Padel that some poems took your assent, your acquiescence, for granted because these were poems about ‘the Holocaust’. In fact, poems should take nothing for granted but must make their case through genuinely felt details, line by scrupulous line, even when about a supposedly sacrosanct subject. Even when a poem’s a failure, it remains interesting, through falling short.


What delights you?

The achievement, the mastery of the thing. Or else it falls away sharply to hit the ground with a thump. That said, value judgements are complex things, governed by notions of taste, knowledge of context, histories of contestation. A poem that appears to fly high to you — an ode to the west wind, a hymn at heaven’s gate — may not seem that way to another reader or listener.


Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Just quickly. Runes (1977), by James K. Baxter. He was, at one time, both my spice paladin and my herb goblin. No Ordinary Sun (1977), by Hone Tuwhare. He could use his diaphragm like a sounding board, a sea chest. Inside Us the Dead (1976), by Albert Wendt. I was delighted by his witty reportage in the immediate post-colonial moment in the newly emergent Pasifika.


I love the title of your new collection (The Conch Shell). The blurb suggests that this collection ‘calls to the scattered tribes of contemporary New Zealand.’ What tribes do you belong to? What literary tribes? How does the word ‘contemporary’ modify things?

Yes, I’m blowing my own (conch) trumpet at sunrise. That title refers to tide-lines of life, to surf-like sounds, to gathering good vibrations, to gods of the sea who, clarion-like, lull the waves, and to the summer of shakes, the year of quakes. And so on, to the final burnout of the run-ragged consumer. The rest is the tribal outcast, and everything you cannot pin down, or ascribe a bar code to.

In fact, the word ‘tribe’ is fraught. I think James K. Baxter brought it into the literary realm. My own tribal background is distinctly heterogeneous rather than Fonterra-homogenous, but if I look around at my contemporaries, poets and otherwise, I see most of them making it up as they go along. A poem tests a proposition; it doesn’t always prove it.


These new poems offer shifting tones, preoccupations, rhythms. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?

My poems like to dwell on the silver wake of a container ship, or the wet sand beneath the upturned hull of a dinghy, or the half-seen, the overheard. Poets re-arrange, but they have duties of care. X.J. Kennedy has pointed out that: ‘The world is full of poets with languid wrenches who don’t bother to take the last six turns on their bolts.’

It’s been five years since my last poetry collection Time of the Icebergs appeared, and one reason my collections have been regularly spaced that far apart is the need for more elbow-grease and line-tightening to get the burnish just so.

The poet’s mind, like anyone else’s is made up of reptilian substrate, limbic empathy and neo-cortical rationality. These shape your reveries and hopefully together lift them out of banality. Our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions. We rationalise our temperaments, draw curtains over our windows, but poems carry an anarchic charge that reveals the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

A poet is in the business of the unsayable being said, showing you fear in a handful of dust. A poet is amanuensis to the subconscious ceaselessly murmuring, and indeed to the planetary hum, the gravitational pull of the earth, the wobble of placental jellyfish in the womb — anything alive, mindless and gooey.


Is there a single poem or two in the collection that particularly resonates with you?

Every poem resonates on its own wavelength, but I found constructing an immediate elegiac response to my father’s death one of the most turbulent. A bit like getting to grips with a storm, with a howling wind that has shape and substance.


Returning to the notion of detail, I see the accumulation of things in your poems as an overlay of highways to elsewhere whether heart, issues, ideas, fancy, memory. Yet the things also pulsate as things in their own right. What draws you to ‘the thisness of things’ (the blurb)?

Things accumulate in my poems in almost haptic fashion, wrestled there like sculptural ingredients. They accumulate, as in the random haphazard assemblages of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, built out of found objects in the streets. Yes, I want to acknowledge the ‘thisness’ of things, but not in the sense of ‘property’. Rather, in the sense of: he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.


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

I can’t get no satisfaction. Actually, poets need to be their own sophisticated antagonists. After all, why write? There’s always a struggle going on between self-revelation and self-concealment. Poetry is a kind of verbal tic; it runs in parallel with consciousness. To be conscious and verbal are vital signs, as Les Murray has pointed out. Then comes the self-questioning: are these fifty poems, fifty varieties of same-same? Is this what the thunder truly said? Is this poem really language dancing, and is it top of the poppermost — that is, is it the best you can do? All this nervous self-doubt surrounds the birth of a successful poem, I think.


The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

Much time is taken up by arts-related stuff: gallery-going, movie-going, theatre-going, concert-going, poetry recitals, beer-sampling, weekend dabbling in arty-crafty matters. And then also I like to get out and about in the landscape: tramping through national parks, exploring West Coast walkways, cycling around Waiheke Island, or across the Mackenzie Country, climbing the lower slopes of the Southern Alps, and on and on. Typical Kiwi pastimes that keep one modestly prepared for the long sedentary hours ahead.


Some poets argue that there are no rules in poetry and all rules are to be broken. Do you agree? Do you have cardinal rules?

Poets are actually not their own creatures. They imitate their forebears. In her diaries, Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Poetry must be exact, intense, concrete, significant, honed, complex.’ She wrote this sentence as a high Modernist priestess when that kind of poetic faith was at its apogee, nevertheless I’d go along with that as an aspirational motto. Yeats again: ‘How but in custom and ceremony are beauty and innocence born?’

There are always rules. A poem — even one generated by a computer — follows rules. But these rules vary poem to poem, and the end result is not about the rules but about organic coherence and meaningfulness.

Here’s another Katherine Mansfield sentence (she’s endlessly quotable), and one William Burroughs would surely have applauded. The reasons why she wrote this don’t matter. What matters is the imagery and the pacing, the rhythm: ‘I took the revolver into the garden today and practised with it, how to load and unload and fire.’ A great New Zealand sentence.


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

Hyperreal, hyperventilating, hyper-opinionated, it’s the new centre of gravity — or else a black hole that will swallow the sun, and take all the time you have. I try to minimise my involvement. As for poetry, the internet works well as an events noticeboard, but actual poems feel anaemic on it, drained and destabilised, apt to float away into cyberspace, never to be seen again.


Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

Well, today, a big compendium that includes Auden’s ‘ 1 September 1939’, Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘The Road to Mandalay’, ‘The Waste Land’, Christina Rossetti, and bits of Don Juan, the Sonnets of Shakespeare… ‘But I think my head is burning and in a way I’m yearning to be done with all this measuring of proof…’



Otago University Press page

New Zealand Book Council author page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page


Poetry Shelf interviews Maria McMillan on Tree Space and other things. ‘Maybe there’s a new Poem space for every poem’

Maria McMillan

Maria McMillan lives on the Kapiti Coast. She is a writer, activist and information architect (fascinating bio!). In 2013, Seraph Press published a limited edition of her chapbook, The Ropewalk. In a review I said of this book: ‘I love the grace, the phrasings, the syntax — the flecks of life and the speckles of fiction that move you out of routine into the sheer pleasure of poetry.’ For the full review go here. Victoria University Press released her new collection, Tree Space, on June 6th. To celebrate the arrival of this terrific collection, Maria agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf. I will post a review of the new collection shortly.

Thanks to Victoria University Press I have a copy of the book to someone who likes or comments or this post or my forthcoming review.

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Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? Did you write as a child? What else did you like to do?

I think it must have in the sense that words and books and thinking were all considered important in my family. I wasn’t musical or sporty but I read and that was more than okay. In fact I think I spent most of my childhood hidden behind closed curtains lying on the strip of sun that fell on to the wide windowsill of our sitting room. My mother would play piano, or someone would be playing Bowie, or Kiss or Split Enz, there’d be the rain-like clatter of my father’s typewriter. I and usually one or two other people around the house would be reading.

There were bookshelves in all the rooms and there was always something to read. I read mostly novels and loved almost all of them. My sisters were a few years older so I had this wonderful back catalogue of all those subversive 60s and early 70s piccolo and puffin and others. But also I’d come across the plain hard-covered books of my mother’s childhood, often a dirty orange I think with the crisscrossed mull showing through the spine and the sort of title you could feel with your fingers. There were lots of other books too, some common, some obscure that I never saw in other people’s houses. So I had and adored E. Nesbit books, Noel Streatfeild, Madeline L’Engle, Elizabeth Goudge but also the Anne of Green Gable books, and Girl of the Limberlost and those funny NZ versions of the English boarding school books of the 1940s. We also had stacks of Tintin and Asterix comics. We all read the Moomin books, so it was a house with Hattifatteners floating around it and, when seasons changed, the sound of Snufkin’s flute. Even as adults my siblings and I describe people we’ve met in relation to the Moomin character they most resemble.

We’d get books for Christmas and birthday presents too and my brother and I were usually allowed to choose one or two novels through the Scholastic Book Club. Some of my favourites came that way; The Velvet Room, a fantastic depression-era tale by Zilpha Snyder was one I read and reread. I think Playing Beatie Bow, came that way too, and I remember the jolt of realising it was the same Sydney and written by the same Ruth Park as Poor Man’s Orange and Harp in the South – old books I’d discovered of my mother’s. I feel lucky too that I came into my teenage years just as Margaret Mahy was writing for that age group. The Changeover was particularly lovely and important. So many. Books were just there.

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

A bit earlier than that, for my seventh birthday I got a gorgeous anthology of children’s verse. My mother was getting me to read out poems and I chose that Robert Louis Stevenson’s From a Railway Carriage ‘Faster than fairies, faster than witches / Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…’ and understanding and loving how it sounded like a train on its tracks. When my mother said I could read another one I just asked to read that one again. I loved how exciting it was and the sounds bounding and rattling over one another. That feels important.

Mum had Fleur Adcock’s Selected Works and as a young adult that became perhaps my favourite of all poetry books. I loved that Adcock was intensely emotional but writing intelligently and in a restrained almost detached way. I had no idea how she did it but I could see how the carefulness of her craft was key to its potency.

How does being an activist impact on your writing?

I think the process of reconciling my activist self and my writing self has been huge and will probably keep being huge. I used to write a lot of protest poems, urgent, angry and furiously important to me. I don’t think they were very good as poems, but I also miss and I guess try to honour some of the compulsion and passion that drove me to write them.

I think for me beginning to learn properly the craft of poetry has been about understanding what poetry can and can’t handle as a medium or – I should say – what my poetry can and can’t handle – many others are writing overtly political poems that are wonderful.

I have, over the years felt and thought so much about the world and what I think is wrong and right about it that I can’t address that stuff directly in verse without the lines shrivelling up. Sometimes I blog about that stuff, I‘ve had fun with indignant press releases, and I get into some satisfyingly hard core online arguments, I just can’t bring it off in the sort of poetry I want to be writing.

Another idea has been helpful through all of this – I can’t remember where I first came across it. That is, if you’re experiencing or thinking about something intensely, it’s going to come into your poetry no matter what you’re writing about. If your best friend has died, you can write about something completely different, say a cat, and the poem will still be about your grief over your friend. That’s useful because I don’t want to be writing bad political poetry but I also don’t want to be carving off a writing part of me from an activist part of me. I just have to have faith that the things that are important to me are there in what I write. And everyone who has read Tree Space has mentioned the ethical and political dimension to the work, so it must be there.

I think this whole issue of how to be a politically engaged writer is ongoing for me. I think if you understand about injustice, the most important work you have to do in your life is to challenge it. I don’t yet know how that fits with writing, but I also do want to write, and if I’m not writing directly about injustice, then I worry I’m wasting my time.

There’s other parts of me which recognise that genuine original creativity is the best and most exhilarating sort of liberation. It’s the great challenge to the oppressive forces that silence and control people. I’ve mentioned Madeline L’Engle already. I loved that scene in A Wrinkle in Time when Meg goes to another planet and there’s a town there where her father is hostage and the whole place is controlled by an enormous brain. Meg walks into it, and every street has a row of identical houses, each with a perfectly mowed lawn and every lawn has an identically dressed child and they’re all bouncing a ball in time with each other. It’s a wonderful and petrifying scene. When Meg faces off the huge all controlling brain she resists it by recalling ideas, poetry, knowledge and feelings. On good days I think poetry is inherently good and subversive just because it’s there standing up against mass produced lies and violence.

Does it make a difference that the writing pen is held by a woman?
Yes and no. Yes because I think our life experiences are still very gendered. I had parents who brought me up absolutely to believe that girls could do anything, and women should be financially independent and have control over their own bodies and minds. Despite all that, coming into adulthood as a young woman is I think a world away from coming into adulthood as a young man. Learning the rules of adulthood for us are, and I’d guess even more so for young women today, about valuing ourselves and each other according to male approval. It’s also about learning of the vulnerability that comes with sexual maturity. It seemed that for years in my late teens getting to know women friends was about them disclosing to me their stories of rape or abuse or eating disorders. It’s really confusing that all this physical and emotional desire to explore sex and sexuality, celebrational and exciting stuff, comes packaged with these rather frightening realisations. Those experiences and the other experiences of womanhood in what is still  a sexist society are profound and different and inevitably impact the knowledge base that I (and I’d guess other women) bring to writing, and as someone interested in those things it particularly impacts my writing preoccupations and subject matter.

No in the sense that I don’t think style or rigour, intellect or emotional depth, frivolity or darkness are split along sex lines. The differences and similarities between individual writers are far more interesting and complex than that. What does make a difference sometimes is the reception given to women and men as writers. Eleanor Catton has mentioned being asked what she feels rather than what she thinks. I think too there’s a presumption that women must write about emotionally intelligent characters and not tackle hard violent things. I think some critics of Pip Adam’s novel, I’m Working on a Building, couldn’t get over the fact a woman writer was discussing characters and situations more conventionally depicted by a bloke.

Your poems offer delight on many levels. For me, the first delight is the musicality. I love the surprising rhythms that shift from liquid honey to addictive syncopation and the accumulation of startling phrases. The glorious juxtapositions. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

Thank you. I do read my poems out to myself as I write them, unless it’s somewhere public where that would just be weird. But given a quiet room somewhere I will say the words over and over without even noticing (damn maybe I am doing it in public places). It’s a very integrated thing, so writing the words and saying them out loud and editing are all part of the same movement. It is all about the sound. That was never a conscious decision, it’s just what I’ve come to realise I do. It may be the same for all poets but by the time I get to the end of writing a poem I may have read out loud each line thirty or so times and rearranged and tweaked and added words and ditched bits based on what it sounds like to me. Then I’ll read the whole thing out again and again alter things until I’m satisfied.

I think I’m always looking to remain interested in my poem from start to finish. I know that if I, with all my self-interest, can’t retain enthusiasm no-one else will be able to. There’s something as well where I want each line to be as full as it possibly can be without collapsing. Because my style tends to be quite sparse that’s an interesting challenge. What other ways can a line hold weight if it isn’t with strings of bedazzling nouns and dense adjectives?

I’m also getting increasingly impatient with craft for its own sake. I get nervous of aiming for poems that are good or competent or clever. I want to write poems that need to be written, poems that tell stories, or untell them, poems that belong in the world as well as the world of poetry. I’d prefer to write bad important poems than good trivial ones.

Michael Hulse recently queried the status of certain poems in a review he did for New Zealand Books. In his mind, some poems weren’t in fact poems. How would you define poetry?

This question got me excited. I know lots of people spend decades thinking about this question but I haven’t really so it’s fun to come up with my own answer. Here’s a three part hypothesis cobbled together from my and other people’s ideas, no lab testing yet, unlikely to be replicable, I eagerly await its disproval.

(1)         Sound must be a central concern of a poem. Not that a poem has to be musical or sound pleasant, it could be discordant or jarring, but some of the poem’s force must be delivered through how it sings, how it moves the air. Even if it’s not read out loud there’s that strange alchemy where we know a poem’s cadence and rhythms without moving our lips. How it alters or attunes to our breath.

(2)         A poem must have integrity. All of it must occupy the same planet and must abide by that planet’s physical and psychic laws. Bits can still rebel against other bits of the poem, in fact that’s good and necessary. I think what I mean is all the parts of the poem must talk to each other, even if they’re shouting. It needs to all be a thing and the same thing.

(3)         A poem must have a beginning and an end, I’m not quite convinced about the beginning. I was intrigued when Mary Reufle was in New Zealand and distinguished between her poems and her poetic writing. It made sense but I wasn’t sure why. Now I think it was probably this third point. Her poetic writing might sound lovely and have internal coherence but it might just float there being poetic. A poem needs a conclusion. It needs to come to something. It must, by the end, engage with something other than itself, the sound it makes, and the space it takes up on the page.

I think you could write a bad poem which meets these three criteria but it would still be a poem, and, I think any good poem would have to meet these criteria.

I love the title poem. You write: ‘To understand tree space you must search all tree space which is/ impossible.’ Wonderful! What did you learn about tree space?

When scientists, who have some data, genetic or observational, about different species and they are trying to figure out how those species are related, they have to contend with the fact there’s a whole lot of different possibilities. You can depict those possibilities through family trees, showing where a population branched off and became a new species, when in turn another species branched off that, and so on. The imagined terrain that contains all possible family trees, some bushy with lots of divisions and subdivisions, and some stark is called Tree space. It’s so vast that it’s impossible for a scientist to look at all the trees and figure out, given their data, which is the most likely tree – the tree most likely to be a correct depiction of how different species evolved. There’s a computer algorithm that searches Tree space. The papers talk of high ground, and clusters of more likely trees, branch swapping and jumping to the next tree. When I learnt, through my partner, of Tree space I was besotted, all that gorgeous language and metaphors that felt like a real physical place you could wander through. I love the bush, and Tree space felt rich with that meaning too, like a thing I always knew about but didn’t have a word for.

This set me thinking about poem space! Can you shift that line to the context of poetry?

I love that idea. And it’s true isn’t it, because we can never understand everything about poetry, can we? You never understand how to write poems, only the poem you’ve just finished.

It fits too because there’s a certain element of poetry that’s unknowable chance and guesswork. Not to diminish the skill involved, some people are brilliant at sitting very quietly at the right spot, in the right weather and holding the net in the right way. But those seemingly random often transformative elements of poetry I find incomprehensible in the best possible way. So I like the idea that we might search and search Poem space to try and understand it but it’s futile. It seems important to keep searching though.

Maybe there’s a new Poem space for every poem, and as poets we have to search it all to find the best possible poem. That’s a slightly frightening and tiring thought but it feels right too. All that reading out loud to ourselves, word swapping, adding new branches and so on.

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