Tag Archives: NZ Poetry

Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: local poets share favourite reads of 2015

For the past two years I have posted an annual list of reading picks by poets and poetry fans to celebrate poetry. The lists turned out to be a sumptuous poetry guide for summer reading – with a few other reading treats thrown in for good measure.

This year I have invited some local poets to share favourite reads over the past year. Rather than assemble the enormous list of previous years, I plan to post them as they arrive.

Happy summer reading!

Celebrating a year on Poetry Shelf: Four short poems by Bill Manhire



Top Dance Moves

You stand around not knowing what to do.

Then music comes and puts

its foot inside your shoe.



The E-mail Lover

Such clumsy roads keep us apart!

If I could find

the old, hand-written heart.



Beyond the screen but not completely out of reach

I can just make out the blackboard

where the first of my teachers first wrote speech.



My World War I Poem

Inside each trench, the sound of prayer.

Inside each prayer, the sound of digging.


© Bill Manhire 2014



These couplets are from Top Dance Moves & other poems, a slim chapbook published by Marinera Press, Wellington 2014. Some you may recognise as Bill tweeted a few of the short poems in the book from @pacificraft. This glorious wee collection filled me with the joy of poetry — the way slender lines send tendrils into a past that jumpstarts, or a heart that pulls, or a melody that swings, or a present that makes believe. One of my favourite reads of the year.

Thanks to everyone who read, shared or contributed to my posts in 2014.

Warm regards for the summer break,

Paula Green




Maria McMillan’s Tree Space: a treasure trove of poetic connections—combinations that continually jumpstart the reader

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Maria McMillan, Tree Space, Victoria University Press, 2014

(Thanks to VUP I have a copy of the book for someone who likes or comments on this post)

Maria McMillan’s biography tag on the back of her new book, Tree Space, fascinates me: ‘Maria McMillan is a writer, activist and information architect who lives on Kapiti Coast.’ Fascinating in the way these four key elements rub against each other.

Maria’s debut poetry book, The Rope Walk, was published by Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press in 2013. It was a terrific arrival, and the sorts of joys that I fell upon there have been carried through into her new collection. As I wrote in my review for Poetry Shelf:

‘The poems are observant, musical, reflective and measured. The collection signals the craft and joy of small poems, words that are gathered together in a minor key where time stalls and you relish a moment. Maria knows how to write with the perfect degree of emotional seasoning and revelation (I will tell you this, but I will not tell you that). There was a sense of hide and seek for me as I read (and indeed there is a poem called ‘Hide and seek’).’

Tree Space is Maria’s first full poetry collection, and the poems have been written over more than a decade. Yes, there is a range of subject matter, style and inclinations, yet there is also a satisfying degree of cohesiveness. The poems step out from diverse starting points, yet frequently that starting point is a pivot for meditation. To me the poem provides an opportunity to delve deeper, to sidetrack and to offer slithers of anecdote.

What binds this book more than anything (although the deft ear comes close) is the way these poems, as poetic space, host relations. One of the delights of poetry is the way a poem reproduces and produces a series (‘set’ is too limiting a word here) of relations—whether aural, semantic or via tropes. There are relations amongst sounds, images, ideas and feelings. Some poets want to activate movement amongst all, others less so. You might fall upon relations between the real, the cerebral and the imagined. Relations between people, places and things. In my view, Tree Space is a treasure trove of poetic connections—combinations that continually jumpstart the reader.

The collection opens with ‘Song.’ An opening that is punctured, punctuated, startling. An opening that links sparrow to poet, the voice box to breath, the voice box to concealment (‘a parcel’) and revelation (anatomic). Pronouns tremble with ambiguity. Whose heaving chest? Hidden in the crevices is the ability to sing, the yearning to sing and the doubt ‘she’ can sing. And thus we enter the collection that sings.

The starting point as a pivot for poetic excursions is beautifully realised in the poem ‘salt marsh and tidal inlet.’ These words caught the poet-reader’s eye while ‘The other words get/ sucked back into the paper.’ It is as though the poet daydreams and we are caught up in her reverie, the words folding back upon each other, the nostalgic trip wires, the little spotlights on where you are and where you’ve been. Glorious!

In ‘Hairy Star,’ it is the breathless wonder at seeing the comet that the poet wants to preserve and remember for her sleeping child that hooks me, and the stepping stone between that sleeping form and the poet’s own little self. The own self: ‘Or my own self, carried to the steps by the back door/ to see a hedgehog. Milk in the saucer. Small noises.’ The sleeping child: ‘You were. In bed covered in pen marks and plum./ Sleeping. Outside your closed curtain/ half-painted trellis.’

I love the way the teapot in the poem, ‘In the very middle,’ transports you to all things strange, and the way ‘a polished cake spoon’ can show you yourself as ‘monsterish and wary.’ Again the pivot, the relations and the meditations.

There are so many poems that stand out for me (perhaps a tiny cluster at the back that don’t)—poems that generate myriad notes in my notebook. Maria is able to capture the luminous instance, a moment in time that becomes imbued with heat or longing or youthfulness. A moment that might be autobiographical or on the other hand invented. She steps into the shoes of others as adroitly as into her own.

‘Paradox’ finds  truth in the way sunflower seeds are both fast and slow growers and the way pumpkins are both heavy and light (and more examples). Maria’s poems are like that paradoxical pumpkin—exuding a tantalising simplicity of form and line yet embracing space that is sweetly fertile. Her poems are quick to the ear and a slow release to the mind. You save the room to move and the detail that sticks. These poems take exquisite flight whilst keeping toes in the soil. I loved this collection.

Victoria University Press page

Seraph Press page

VUP interview

Maria’s blog

Poetry Shelf interview with Maria

Interview with Janis Freegard

Poem Friday: Chris Tse’s ‘The saddest song in the world’ sweeps you into folds of sadness that in turn become folds of joy

Chris Tse - author photo - 2014 - resized

Photo credit: Sklee

Today, two sections from a longer, unpublished poem by Chris Tse.


The saddest song in the world


I can fit the saddest song in the world in my carry-on.

I can fit the saddest song in the world in my right-side brain.


But I can’t fit it in my lungs or hold on to it with confidence

when underwater.                 And I can’t fit the saddest song


on one side of a 90-minute cassette tape without

an uncomfortable silent interlude cutting into its breath.


There is only so much space I can allocate to the saddest

song in the world;                   the weight is unbearable.



Once, a lover exhaled my name in ecstasy and transformed it

into the saddest song in the world       all bolting nerves


and tender skin       pulling at the roar of the avalanche

in me.     By morning his name had taken another form


one freed from the haze of giddy crush     though it still rings in me

a stubborn joy.       The room in which we sung each other’s names


is now an altar with no idol.           Likewise, when I was once lost

in the company of foreign tongues       every new word shared


to describe the sorrow of joy   shook me like the saddest song

in the world.   A list of first loves.   An index of loss.


The saddest song in the world was kind enough to pull me back

into comfort               its reassurances a cool blade of sound.


© Chris Tse.doc

Chris lives and works in Wellington. His first full-length poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, will be published by Auckland University Press in September.

Chris’ note: I have a playlist on my iPod of my all-time favourite songs (embarrassing fact: the playlist is called “Awescool”). The majority of these songs are touched with tragedy and sadness, so it’s been a personal quest of mine to find the saddest song in the world (any leads will be gratefully accepted). Many of the poems that I’m writing at the moment explore the role of music in our lives and its relationship to memory. I’m particularly interested in how music functions as a conduit for shared experiences. With that in mind, this poem ponders what ‘the saddest song’ (in whatever form it might take) could mean to different people.

Paula’s note: With no idea of its genesis, when I originally read this poem, it read like an extraordinary incantation of sadness. It struck me as part list poem, building delicious momentum in surprising pieces and productive links, and as part song, exuding bitter-sweet lyricism. For me, the first section became more than how and where you carry sad songs, because it exploded into how and where you carry sadness. The song (the poem) became a bridge to melancholic luggage for a cast of characters. As you absorb the rhythms and details of each section, there is an ambiguous sway between invention and the real. You get pulled through memory, anecdote, confession, epiphany, and it is this glorious movement that diverts you from sadness as a distancing abstraction. Music has the power to mimic and affect you, and so too does poetry. I love the surprise and the fresh touch of this poem, the way it sweeps you into folds of sadness that in turn become folds of joy. How does the poem’s genesis change my reading? I am not sure. I love the mission. I love the way that mission becomes poetry.

Launch of Siobhan Harvey’s Cloudboy

In one hour: I did a mad dash up Queen Street to catch the launch of Siobhan Harvey’s wonderful new poetry collection and then a mad dash back down Queen Street to catch Corneila Funke reading (I had just spent the day with Cornelia showing my favourite haunts on the West Coast). So I missed part of the launch and the reading but my early morning runs at Bethells paid off!

Siobhan’s launch, fittingly, was a special occasion for a special book– a book I plan to write about soon! Lots of Auckland poets came in support, including Janet Charman who launched the book with verve and tantalising extracts.

More soon!



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A perfect little parcel from Cilla McQueen– it dazzles, it lifts, it sets you loose in the theatre of the past and amidst the heavenly electricity of words


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Cilla McQueen, Edwin’s Egg & other Poetic Novellas Otago University Press, 2014

When this little parcel arrived in the post I oohed and I aahed at the sheer delight of it. Cilla McQueen, who has a track record of very fine poetry, has written eight little novellas and Otago University Press has placed the eight beige notebooks in a gorgeous little box. Exquisite. Heavenly. You could read these in a flash but I have savoured and lingered and dawdled, and now that I have finished, I still don’t want to let go.

Novellas, yes. But also poetry, as every single line resonates in aural honey and semantic wonder. You track a narrative thread that buckles and hitches and loops and leapfrogs. The connections gather, the disconnections give joy and the gaps are beautifully fertile.

Each page of text is accompanied by a photograph from the National Library archives and each photograph acts as a springboard for the writing. The images are acknowledged in the back of each booklet. You can see what a haven the archives were for Cilla as these archival images are startling, witty, beautiful, nostalgic, astonishing.

You can read the booklets in four key ways. You can read the images, you can read each individual page of text (like a mini prose poem), you can read the whole sequence of novellas and absorb the connections, disconnections and gaps, and finally you can move back and forth across the luminous bridges between image and text. The latter is particularly rewarding. You are leapfrogged to your own private storehouse (memory theatre) of preserved anecdotes, objects vividly clear, snippets of conversation and memory shards. As you gather momentum in this extraordinary reading experience, it all builds to a magical, other-wordly narrative, bith visual and textual.

Cilla has not embarked upon a literal transcription of a framed scene into poetry or narrative. There are subtle and varied links, rebounding motifs and themes (especially the egg), humour, wit, economy. Sometimes it is like a jump-pad for free association but there is narrative glue at work here. These novellas holds together in a porous, elastic, lithe kind of way (if that makes sense!).

I like the way characters keep making appearances as though walking in from stage left or stage right: Edwin, Beryl, Eric, Doris, Digby. I love the way they spark with and away from the images and lay the seeds for their own, staccato threads.

I want to quote everything, but here are a handful of sentences that stalled me:

The more imagination grasps at an idea the greater the void created.

A man is so sudden , she thought.

He looked up at the sky’s blue eyelid, sealed by day and opening at night.

His yolk was warm amber in a white crucible.

Edwin gloomily sorted through the remains of his marriage.

No chance with this hip, Doris thought.


The novellas were part of the project Cilla undertook as NZ Poet Laureate (2009-2011) and were published in chapters on the Laureate website as ‘Serial.’ See here for details. Edwin’s Egg is unlike anything I have read in New Zealand literature– it dazzles, it lifts, it sets you loose in the theatre of the past and amidst the heavenly electricity of words.

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Otago University Press page

NZ Book Council page

NZEPC author page

Poetry Archive

NZ Poet Laureate page






NZ Poetry Shelf: A new venue for poetry reviews and other things

In his speech for the New Zealand Post Book Awards’ shortlist, chief judge John Campbell said: “It is a reflection of the extraordinary strength of the new and young writers we read, particularly in poetry, where New Zealand is blessed by so many fine writers (at all ages and stages) that we respectfully suggest poetry could stand beside rugby as our national sport.” I have heard some stadiums overseas get packed to the brim to hear a poet.

Having read so many of the poetry books published in the past 17 months and with much admiration, John’s declaration prompted me to put a floating idea into concrete action. The past year has produced a feast of New Zealand poetry from the addictive syntax and poetic reaches of Janet Charman to the utter loveliness and warmth of Elizabeth Smither, from the familial pathways of Emma Neale to the musicality of Vincent O’Sullivan, from the measured lines of CK Stead to the storytelling of John Newton, from the vibrant poems of Kerrin P Sharpe to the light touch of Kiri Piahana-Wong. Many of the books have been produced with such love and care that the object you hold in your hands pays perfect tribute to the love and poetic joys within (for example, Bill Manhire’s exquisite Selected Poems and Maria McMillan’s handcrafted The Rope Walk). The list of poetic treasures that have emerged in the past year is immense.

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Thus, my new blog: a New Zealand poetry page for reviews, interviews and other such things. As with its sister, NZ Poetry Box, the blog will develop over time. At this stage I welcome poetry books to review. I won’t review all poetry books that come out, but I aim to review a range of books from a range of publishers writing in a range of styles by a range of voices, including poetry from abroad. However, the main focus is New Zealand.

To launch the blog I will shortly spotlight some books that I have enjoyed over the past year (excluding those books that I have already reviewed for The Herald‘s Canvas magazine).

I applaud the list of finalists for The New Zealand Post Book Awards for Poetry including Best First Book. My review of Ian Wedde’s The Lifeguard can be found at this link  and my review of Kate Camp’s Snow White’s Coffin will be in The Herald this weekend. Thanks to the generosity of Auckland University Press, Victoria University Press and Hue & Cry I have a prize pack of these books to give to someone who follows this site within the next week.

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I would also like to thank Sarah Laing for designing the header background.

So welcome!