Tag Archives: NZ poets

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!

Three Chords and the Truth: an evening of music and poetry for grownups (The Adulterators starring Cliff Fell and John Newton)

The Adulterators (Cliff Fell & John Newton) w/ Mahoney Harris
Wed Oct 8 at 7:30pm to Thu Oct 9 at 10:00pm
The Dog’s Bollix in Auckland, New Zealand

Three Chords and the Truth: an evening of music and poetry for grownups

On The Shelf in September: Poetry picks by Chris Tse, Hinemoana Baker, Karen Craig

Chris Tse

I emerged from a film festival-induced haze to find that my to-read pile has grown exponentially. (Fittingly, one of the books that I’ve recently finished and enjoyed is Helen Rickerby’s Cinema for its wistful and charming tales of reality colliding with the world of movies.) Near the top of my daunting pile are Maria McMillan’s Tree Space and Hinemoana Baker’s waha | mouth (both VUP, 2014), and Sam Sampson’s Halcyon Ghosts (AUP, 2014). I’ve also been itching to get stuck into When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). I stumbled across her poem ‘My Brother at 3am’ and then went searching for whatever else I could find by her.

I’ve been dipping in and out of books by two American poets (there’s a spooky synchronicity with their titles): Scarecrone by Melissa Broder (Publishing Genius Press, 2014) and Scary, No Scary by Zachary Schomburg (Black Ocean, 2011). Both write deliciously dark poems, which read like fables that speak of how terrifying and confusing the modern world can be. At times these poems have an irreverent edge to them, and both poets use such precise language and ominous images to conjure up worlds of unease.

Chris Tse‘s first poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (AUP), will be available in stores and online from 22 September.


Hinemoana Baker

Bird murder  When I closed this book after reading it for the first time, my exact words were ‘Now that’s how it’s done.’ Bird murder is a dark chronicle of close-packed language and noir thrills. Being a bird-lover from way back, I delighted in the book’s central murder, and I secretly hoped it was the Stellar’s Jay itself that did it. Overall, though, it’s simply the exceptional quality and music of the sentences that blows me away. An example from ‘Setting’:

Mrs Cockatrice, pink hair a-boule

sets the table for her guests.

Her ornamental milking stool


will do for a child.



And one more, from ‘Solar midnight’:


I came from a lake with an island on it

and on the island there was a lake.

The water was so silver. I had feathers then.’

– Bird murder by Stefanie Lash, Mākaro Press, Hoopla Series. Eastbourne, 2014.


The Red Bird I was alerted to Joyelle by Shannon Welch, whose Iowa Writing Workshop I attended at the IIML in 2003. It would be hard to overstate the effect it had on me reading these lines from ‘Still Life w/ Influences’:


Up on the hill,

a white tent had just got unsteadily to its feet

like a foal or a just-foaled cathedral.

I’ve been known to say loudly, on several occasions since, if I’d written that I could die happy. A glib hat-tip but the feeling is entirely genuine. This particular book travels from whales to guitarists to car accidents and beagles and doubles back. In the introduction, Allen Grossman says Joyelle ‘is a poetic realist. Her poems are neither reductive nor fantastic. But they are profoundly mysterious in the way any truthful account of the world must be.’

– The Red Bird by Joyelle McSweeney, Fence Books / Saturnalia Books. New York NY, 2002.

Hinemoana Baker‘s latest collection of poetry, waha | mouth, has just been released by Victoria University Press. I will review it on Poetry Shelf.


Karen Craig

Two poets I’ve been spending a lot of time with recently are Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, prompted by my job at Auckland Libraries, where we’ve been working on adding some lists of recommended reads in GLBTQI fiction and literature to our website. Thom Gunn is an old acquaintance who never ceases to awe me with the hard (yet supple — how they suited his poems, those black leather biker jackets) intelligence of his vision and the cool leanness of his language. The book I’m reading now is the Selected Poems edited by August Kleinzahler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), which includes my favourite poem ‘Considering the Snail’, where the snail “moves in a wood of desire,/ pale antlers barely stirring/ as he hunts.” That’s already good. “What is a snail’s fury?” That’s genius, for me.

Mark Doty is a new find for me. A friend recommended his memoir Dog Years for a “Sadness” display we did at Central Library, saying it was the saddest book she’d ever read. If I tell you it’s over 200 pages and I read it all in one day and night, that will give you an idea of how this man gets inside your heart. He’s one of those people that when I was in high-school we used to call “beautiful”, and, when we used the term in our English essays, be told — rightly — that it was too imprecise. So to be more precise on Mark Doty’s beauty: a largeness of spirit, a sense of wonder and mystery, emotivity and desire, the musicality of the ordinary.  I’m reading Paragon Park (David R. Godine, 2012), a collection of his early poems, while waiting for the more complete collection Fire to Fire (New York : HarperCollins, c2008). To match Thom Gunn’s snail, an amazing “Turtle, Swan”, where he addresses his lover, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, “you with your white and muscular wings / that rise and ripple beneath or above me, / your magnificent neck, eyes the deep mottled autumnal colors / of polished tortoise —  I do not want you ever to die.”

On an other note, I’ve got Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond’s Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Alan Brunton, poems 1968-2002 (Titus Books, 2013) from the library. I’ve just started dipping in, but I could see immediately that this is the kind of book which makes you really understand what is meant by “labour of love”. Beautifully composed, a careful, pondered – never ponderous – and, subtly, poetic introduction, which will have something for everyone. And the poems! A universe, no, a multiverse, of raptures and pandemoniums.

About me:
I work at Auckland’s Central City Library promoting fiction and literature both on the shelves and off the shelves, through book launches, author talks, lectures and — with great joy, always – poetry celebrations, including National Poetry Day evenings in conjunction with nzepc, Stars of Pasifika Poetry every March, and The Day of the Dead Beat Poets, every November 2. For the next 12 months I’m serving in a just-created role focussing on initiatives across the libraries to raise awareness of our collections. I write the Books in the City (http://albooksinthecity.blogspot.co.nz/) blog.

Off the Poetry Shelf: Emma Neale reviews the latest collections of Caoilinn Hughes, Alice Miller and Marty Smith

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Gathering Evidence Caoilinn Hughes VUP $28

In densely packed poems bristling with knowledge, Hughes’s first collection shows a gift for delineating the empirical while simultaneously winnowing metaphorical value from it. Praised elsewhere for her precision, Hughes seems to me also a richly allusive poet. The span of her vocabulary, her ease with abstractions, metonymy, near-neologisms and heightened poetic rhetoric — (e.g. the “luciferean abdomen” of a firefly) — show a poet who both layers and layers, and tries to burrow ever deeper into her material, to really isolate its inner workings.

The book holds everything from an impish look at a game of Scrabble to narratives of scientific experiment and discovery. These in turn range from humanity’s first successful effort to begin and arrest a nuclear reaction, to the legal case taken up by the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were cultivated without her permission into the ‘immortal’ HeLa line.

Hughes’s work manages to seem both compendious and yet compressed; each piece pulls in considerable, closely observed data, and yet avoids the prosey feel of Wikipedia entries, with spry, punning, psychologically apt metaphors, or the frequent tang of prosody: ‘slipping into the bullring of incandescence’; ‘launching Glory Bes/into the gluey hives and trenches of her head’; ‘plays chess with the evening’s reticence’.



The Limits Alice Miller AUP $24.99 

Alice Miller’s book acts as a cool ‘mental palate’ cleanser if read immediately after the Hughes. The Limits pushes for new archetypes through old. One poem, “Antarctica II”, reiterates ‘This is what we used to call a fairy tale’ — a gloss that could apply to many of the delicately wrought poems here. They read like fragments of cautionary tales, of psychodramas spun from love and fear, aspirations and disappointments. The poems offer intense, dreamlike evocations of mood and relationship dynamics through crisp, clean, yet elliptical and elusive phrasing. Each line is like a single drop of water sending out sonic and visual ripples, rather than the joyously hyperactive torrent of facts and analysis in the Hughes.

There is often a sense with Miller’s work that the reader’s version of the subject of the poem can only inch towards a partial translation from the eerie, haunting language of dream, which itself is a translation of the unspoken or inarticulate in the daily. The poems carry the psychological ‘fragrance’ of new foundation myths; of recent —or near-future — cultural crises whittled back down into the primal nouns of body, earth, apple, skin, fire, ocean. The slightly apocalyptic tremor along the skin of some of the poems can either return us to crises of the past (as in ‘After Battle’) or project us into eerie fusions of the now and the any-moment-now. There are the landscapes and mindscapes of city, trucks, forests, ATMS, border-crossings and terror that suggests a beleaguered present-day Europe; there are two ‘Waiata’ that seem to ventriloquise 19th century settler variations upon, or infusions, of the Maori form; ‘Ocean’ has idealism, fear and ecological crisis lapping at its edges: “point to lands that reach beyond the myth/but soon the water’s pouring up the hills/because we cannot map the ocean still”.

Good at finding metaphor and image for the nebulous, the inchoate, the shift and slide of emotional response to the relatively removed or abstract, Miller’s work embodies the idea that a poem should leave the world both a little more illuminated and a little more mysterious at its close. This reminds me of the surrealism of Michael Harlow in its sense of what we might call the accurate strangeness not just of language, but also of the workings of the subconscious.


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 Horse with Hat Marty Smith VUP $30

The tonal range in Marty Smith’s Horse with Hat is, I think, the widest of all three collections reviewed here. This is alternately comic, wry, downbeat, vernacular, lyrical: yet it is also at times dark, plangent and moving in its use of narratives distilled from extended family relationships. The collection gathers small yet vivid dramatic moments from the routines of farm work and a lost pre-digital world, where the children remember that “TV arrived like a Martian” (‘reception’) and ‘You only made phone calls if someone was sick or dead or married’ (as one typically long and cheekily, tartly inverted title has it).

With its imagery of “quicksilver silvery birds” and “eel thoughts” that “slide along our sides” (‘A mile here, a mile there’) the poems are gorgeously evocative of landscape and the sensation of, say, early dawn on the farm – where one natural observation infuses another with both physicality and emotion: “those horses talk to themselves/low, and tender as the fat wetness of roses” (‘dawn horses’).

The collection builds up the sense of how the vulnerable, sensitive child still sits inside the adult, and the animal or primal lingers inside the human. ‘Creature’ is a compellingly simple poem about the fusion between self and animal;

“I make the glorious mouth./It is a heart-blossom red I choose./I leave teeth marks.[….] The sun in my lungs/I put my tail up and go.”

Other poems slide into the animal voice, showing how close contact with working animals deeply influences the child’s sense of identity, time, imagination and land. The book also runs its fingers over the history of civilisation’s relationship with the horse (‘Lot 165’). It’s impressive to realise how much ground is covered in what is also a tightly themed collection. From Crusaders to gambling nuns and the fiery, unpredictable character of the poet’s returned serviceman father, the book dips in and out of the human use of horses, and the strange attractions and repulsions of family.

The father’s character bristles on the page with frustration, fury, and yet love; the poems weave and bob with the sense of complex individuals, and tangled, ingrown, or estranged relationships. All the while, the long contrail of war trauma chokes the family atmosphere.

Brendan O’Brien’s illustrations for the book are a dreamlike bricolage, with tumbled perspective and collisions of genre (Biblical engravings, coloured cigarette cards). The air of bewilderment and wonder, and of bizarre within the familiar, plays deft visual accompaniment to the poetry’s side-winding snippets of family feud and rural life.



Poets at Te Papa

WRITERS ON MONDAYS: Best New Zealand Poems 2013

What better way to anticipate National Poetry Day* than with a line-up of nine of the best? Come along to hear Kate Camp, Mary-Jane Duffy, Dinah Hawken, Anna Jackson, Therese Lloyd, Greg O’Brien, Rachel O’Neill, Chris Tse and  Ashleigh Young read their poem selected for the annual online publication Best New Zealand Poems,  plus a favourite NZ poem. The editors of this year’s selection, Mark Williams and  Jane Stafford, will introduce the poets.

(*National Poetry Day is on 22 August).

Writers on Mondays is presented with Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation, and National Poetry Day.

DATE:    Monday 18 August
TIME:     12.15-1.15pm
VENUE: Te Papa Marae, Level 4, Te Papa
(please note that no food may be taken onto the Marae).

On the Shelf: May picks by Tina Makereti, Helen Rickerby, Bernadette Hall, Damien Wilkins


1. Tina Makereti:


Three Collections

I’m putting together the course reader for my Victoria University course, Te Hiringa a Tuhi – Māori & Pasifika Creative Writing Workshop, so I’ve been reading a fair bit of poetry, as well as non-fiction and fiction. Here are three that are particularly interesting me at the moment (I seem to be only part way through everything!)

1. Tapa Talk – Serie Barford (Huia Publishers, 2007)

There is something wonderfully rich in this exploration of tapa or siapo. I also find Samoan / Pasifika concepts of va powerful territory for creativity. This excerpt is a good example:


on Sunday the priest said teu le va

make presentable the distance

between you and the other


there’s no such thing as empty space

just distances between things


made meaningful by fine lines

connecting designs and beings

in the seen and unseen worlds


distances can be shortened

made intimate or dangerous


or lengthened

until the connection weakens

finally withers away […]



2. Shout Ha! To The Sky – Robert Sullivan (Salt Publishing, 2010)

I’m much more familiar with Star Waka, but have always wanted to look at this. It is full of Sullivan’s astute, witty, wry yet sensitive approaches to vast topics that range from academic and political to intimate. I often find his books, though poetry, are suited to being read beginning to end like a novel, and that some of the poems might be read almost like personal essays (which for me makes them even more enjoyable). This collection is full of references to books, histories and writers, and Sullivan’s trademark sharp humour:

15 Review

When I was a lot younger I was reviewed by someone

who said that I should stop paying homage to other writers—


you know what? I listened to that reviewer so for a long time

I wouldn’t pay my respects—I’d pretend I was writing in a vacuum,


That there was no history of reading inside me, that everything

Was original breath unaffected by the airs and graces of my elders […]


3. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion – Kei Miller (Carcanet Press, 2014)

This collection by a Jamaican writer is very specific yet speaks universally, as does his other writing. I particularly like the way he calls the idea of knowing into question by having two speakers in this collection, the Mapmaker and Rastaman, who question each others’ reality. Both points of view are simultaneously true and not-completely-true. Seeing this poet in performance is also a moving experience.


Tina Makereti’s debut novel, Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, was published recently by Random House. I have so much to say about this glorious book, I am going to bend my rules and review it on Poetry Shelf as soon as possible!


2. Damien Wilkins:



I’d like to cheat on the brief slightly and recommend a critical work which I think poets should read: Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions by Maggie Nelson (University of Iowa Press, 2007). I tell my PhD students about this one because it’s a model of critical prose – accessible and enjoyable without stinting on knotty theoretical issues. With a focus on New York poets from the 1960s and beyond, including Barbara Guest, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley and Eileen Myles, as well as the blokes (Schuyler, O’Hara, Ashbery), the book offers engrossing readings of individual works but also a thrilling argument for rethinking what poetry is and does. One of Nelson’s triumphs is to revise the division between representation and abstraction in literature. ‘Abolishing partitions’ is how she describes it. Hers is a generous, capacious mind. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth also blurbs it, so this book is really cool too.

Damien Wilkins is Director of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters. He will introduce rehearsed readings from his novel, Max Gate, by five actors (directed by Murray Lynch) at the Auckland Writers Festival (Friday May 16th, Lower NZ, Aotea Centre). He has several new poems in the latest issue of Sport.



3. Helen Rickerby:


Bird Murder, Stefanie Lash (Mākaro Press, 2014) This debut collection was published in a set of three, along with my own Cinema and Michael Harlow’s Heart Absolutely I Can. I got to read it before it went to print, and was blown away by its originality and accomplishment – I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s a gothic murder mystery set in the not-quite fictional West Coast town of Tusk, and features taxidermy, extinct birds, a cast of characters with extraordinary hair-colours and beautiful poetry. It manages to be, by turns, grim, funny, surreal, magical and historically accurate, but not all at the same time.

The Odour of Sanctity, by Amy Brown (VUP, 2013) This is still a work in progress for me – it’s a long book, but I’m enjoying it. It’s so ambitious – this isn’t just a book-length poem sequence – it’s a very-long-book-length poem sequence about six candidates for sainthood, from Aurelius Augustine to Jeff Mangum of the band Neutral Milk Hotel. The form and tone change with each section, each candidate. So far my favourite is the beautiful and surreal first, ‘The breakdown of the time machine’, about, and in the voice of, Jeff Mangum.

Bloodclot, by Tusiata Avia (VUP, 2009) I’m organising a conference on biographical poetry with Anna Jackson and Angelina Sbroma, and Anna had mentioned this automythographical book as one that would be interesting for someone to talk about at the conference. I don’t know quite how it is that I hadn’t read it before, but I’ve rectified that now. Like the two previous books I’ve mentioned, it has an overall narrative – in this case it’s about Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, who is also a ‘half-caste girl from Christchurch’.

Poems, by Anne Michaels (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) This is actually three books in one: The Weight of Oranges (1986), Miner’s Pond (1991) and Skin Divers (1999). Michaels is a Canadian poet who is probably best known for her novel Fugitive Pieces (which I have to confess I have never read because I think it will be quite hard going, emotionally). I first read this book almost a decade ago, and I sought it out again because of the aforementioned conference, because I remembered being struck by biographical poems in here, particularly one about expressionist artist Paula Modersohn-Becker and another about astronomer Johannes Kepler. When I first read it, I remembered it being hard-going poetry, and it’s true that it’s rather serious, but it seems much lighter to me now, and just beautiful. It’s full of beautiful images and affecting and true lines: ‘desire/clinging like windy paper to legs’, ‘Only love sees the familiar for the first time’, ‘I wanted badly that truth be a single thing’. I’ve been reading the library’s copy, but I know I have to own this now – these are poems I’ll want to return to.


Helen Rickerby runs Seraph Press. Her most recent poetry collection, Cinema, was published by Mākaro Press. See my review here.


4. Bernadette Hall:

cov-wildparty   cov-wildparty   cov-wildparty   cov-wildparty

‘Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still,

And she danced twice a day in vaudaville.’

These are the opening lines of ‘The Wild Party’, a lost classic by Joseph Moncure March (1928). Reprinted, uncensored, with drawings by Art Spiegelman (1994). It came my way, 111 pages of ‘hard-boiled, jazz-age tragedy told in syncopated rhyming couplets’, when I was in Iowa in 1997. It sizzles, it’s of its time, it could be a bit of a shock today. I should be ashamed to be so fond.

Bernadette Hall’s current project is ‘Maukatere: floating mountain’ – an experimental text with artwork by the Wellington poet/artist, Rachel O’Neill. An extract appears in the latest edition of Landfall.


to the magazine! Sport 42 ‘long times spent sitting/ looking at the view so long’

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I love Sport‘s cover photograph snapped by Damien Wilkins at the Royal Albatross Colony in Dunedin. It features a sign indicating the direction ‘to the magazine.’ There is a delicious ripple of irony as the editor and publisher of Sport, Fergus Barrowman, had last year announced the journal’s demise due to a lack of funding from Creative New Zealand.  Sport had momentarily lost its way, much to the consternation of readers throughout the country. But as the journal secured funding from elsewhere, we now have a terrific issue to savour over the coming year. Yeeha!

This issue, along with the usual mix of fiction and poetry, includes four essays. I would love to see more of this (sounding a bit Rick Steinish in the face of both good food and endangered species!) How stimulating to read Mark Williams’ lively and inventive approach to New Zealand poetry in ‘When You’re Dead You Go on Television: Sex, Death, and Household Objects in Some New Zealand Poetry.’ It was the sort of essay that got you thinking about other poems in relation to his three themes and the fertile possibilities of exploring these three themes in the one critical space.

I haven’t finished reading Sport 42 yet, because I like to dip and delve over months rather than weeks, and I am not going to comment on the fiction (which I haven’t even started upon) other than to say I spotted some must-read names: Lawrence Patchett, Pip Adam, Tina Makereti, Breton Dukes and Charlotte Simmonds along with a cluster of those new to me.

There is an equally tempting list of poets that range from some beloved landmarks on our poetry landscape (Bill Manhire, Geoff Cochrane, Elizabeth Smither, James Brown, Chris Price) to the recently emerged (Sarah Jane Barnett, Amy Brown, Kerrin P Sharpe). There are about 39 poets and a number of these are brand new sparkling voices!

Here is a tasting plate of what has struck a poetic chord so far:

Amy Brown has a sequence of poems that take her into temporal elsewhere, and that highlight the power of an object to take you in multiple semantic and nostalgic directions (as though the poem is a little like a pocket memory theatre). I particularly ‘Names’—a poem that is evocative, tender and vibrant, and that embodies loss in aching detail.

Chris Price‘s poem, ‘The also-ran,’ reminded me how much I like her poetry. Here the disgruntled ‘runner’ is a misfit on the hunt for the elusive or the grass-that-is-greener or self recognition. Price relishes musical fluency as her miniature narrative is punctured into stanzas (broken breath) with sweet enjambment that connects, keeping both runner and reader on track.

Lynn Davidson‘s ‘Kapiti Island Welcomes Back the Girl and Her Mother,’ is steered by the deft hand of both storyteller and musician: (‘They cut through weed and current/ flicker and fin to get in’ and ‘to make words make/ this wind that howls/ make the frequencies for language’). AAhhh!

Sarah Jane Barnett‘s long poem, ‘Running with My Father,’ also adopts the rhythm of running, but her poem strengthens in its shifting style. The early morning run absorbs the father figure in memory flashes, the way the puff and pant of lungs and heart working hard draw in different images and insights. This is a glorious poem that pulls you in closer to thoughts of death and of life.

Frances Samuel is not a poet that I am familiar with, but I was struck by her poems and was delighted to see VUP will publish her debut collection later this year. Her poems have serenity, simplicity, a meditative quality, an offset quirkiness running through them that is utterly alluring. One poem begins: ‘There are so many ways to write about dying.’ Another start: ‘In the very earliest time/ autumn trees stretched to the sky/ raking the reds and pinks of the sunset.’

I found myself half singing Bill Manhire‘s selection then wanted Hannah Griffin to take over— her heavenly voice igniting ‘Rikkitikkitavi/ you’re so charming/Rikkitikkitavi/ oh my darling.’ Is this a bad thing? You get Bill’s cheeky wit on the page, the sweet pull of repetition and rhyme, and then you want to sit in a dimly lit room and hear these poems sung.

And I loved Damien Wilkin‘s found poem —the titles of books Bill Manhire left behind on his shelf.

Next up the rewards of James Brown and Elizabeth Smither ….





Ashleigh Young goes biking!

Check out this terrific post from Ashleigh Young:

A bike ride with James Brown


I’ve been a big fan of James Brown’s poems for a long time. The first poem of his I read was ‘Loneliness’, in 2001. It’s probably still his most well known poem, all these years later. I wonder if James is a bit tired of it now, has made a real effort to leave it behind, the way Radiohead have left behind ‘Creep’ but a stubborn faction of people still want them to play it and wish they’d go back to their roots. Anyway, after I read it and Lemon, his second book, I became preoccupied with tracking down a copy of his first book, Go Round Power Please. It was out of print, but that eerie crowd of little pottery faces on the cover haunted me, and eventually I stumbled across a copy in a secondhand bookstore, and when I read that book, I knew that James’s poems would end up being permanent fixtures in my head.

The full post is here

Gregory O’Brien in conversation with Kim Hill (on Alan Brunton) Just wonderful!

This is a wonderful discussion — Kim Hill and Gregory O’Brien talking about Alan Brunton and Alan’s new book, Beyond the Ohlala Mountains. It was terrific hearing archival material of Alan reading on the show. You can hear more of that here. You can also catch up with the splendid book launch here.


Poetry with Gregory O’Brien: Alan Brunton  here.

Discussing the poems of Alan Brunton, as collected in Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Alan Brunton Poems 1968-2002 (Titus Books, 2014) edited by Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond.

From Saturday Morning on 05 Apr 2014

On the Shelf: A Monthly Poetry List

This is the first of a regular feature on NZ Poetry Shelf. I cribbed the idea from The Poetry Foundation (which I follow on Twitter). Each month I will invite a handful of NZ poets and poetry fans to share a handful of poetry books they are currently reading and loving. Where it is relevant, I will flag any new venture, project, award, book, event or news associated with them.


First up this month is Emma Neale, a Dunedin poet and novelist that currently holds the University of Otago Wallace Residency at the Pah Homestead. She will be reading at an event at the homestead on March 20th.  Details here.

Three poetry books I have on the go:
1. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth  by Warsan Shire (London: Flipped Eye, 2011). Shire is a poet born in Kenya to Somalian parents, who now lives in London. This collection works less through the music of the language and the dramatic potential of the line break than it does through a strong sense of narrative, and sexual and political frankness. Her real strength, it seems to me from this book, is in the prose poem. It confronts the trauma of civil war, diaspora, the conflicting demands of Islam and secularism, traditional and contemporary views of women’s sexuality. The men are almost uniformly brutal; the women assert themselves mainly through sexual defiance: there are deeply troubling themes here, but Shire’s gifts for sensuous imagery and the vividness with which she captures the shock and dislocation of war’s effects, particularly on women and children, is unforgettable. It’s direct and disturbing; leaves you with a contrail of sadness over the ongoing shame and trauma of witnessing family members complicit in nationalised violence.
2. The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton (New York: New Directions, 2006.) Quiet, lyrical, pared back contemplations of the relationship between humans and landscape, and pushing on the borderlands between the subconscious and conscious mind. I love his explorations of the dreamworld, the half-waking state, and moments of silence and suspension when the social word seems to have been softened, turned down, by dusk and the colder seasons.

3. New Collected Poems by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Manchester: Carcanet 2008.) Not the New Zealand educationalist, Sylvia Ashton Warner, but the English author, who lived from 1893-1978, and who was in a relationship with another woman for about 40 years. I’ve just started this, and it’s a borrowed copy, recommended by friend and academic Pete Swaab, but already I’m reminded of Robin Hyde and the way she seems to move between Georgian and modernist aspects of style; and I’m amazed at how dexterous she is with very simple rhymes; and at the range of characters within her poems. She seems to fuse all the traditional aspects of prosody with a good sense of psychological narrative.


Second is Ian Wedde, our previous Poet Laureate:

1. Michael Hofmann‘s great Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 2005). Ends with the laconic Jan Wagner (b. 1971) and begins with the equally astringent Else Lasker-Schuler (umlaut u) (b. 1869). In between, of course, Rilke et al, not always so terse.

2. Am in pursuit of my remote nineteenth century relative Johannes Wedde‘s long poem in praise of the Paris Commune of 1871. Johannes (b. 1843) was a German Socialist Workers Party member, newspaper editor, and scourge of Bismark, who corresponded with Engels in London in the 1880s. The poem may not be much good but I’m enjoying looking for it.


Thirdly Marty Smith whose debut collection, Horse with Hat, was recently launched by Victoria University Press. I will review this book shortly.

1. I love D. A. Powell’s  Cocktails  (and Tea and Lunch ) because I can go for a wander through the New York of cocktail bars, and cinemas and The Gospels. The poems are really horrifying and funny and sad. They’re fragmentary, and there’s a breathless quality, a breath-taking stop-start set of startling images that pull you through each poem,

when you touch down upon this earth/
little reindeers
hoofing murderously at the gray slate roof/
I lie beneath
dearest father xmas: will you bring me another/
17 years


2. Anne Carson’s If not, Winter   Fragments of Sappho  is always in the back of my mind, for the sheer brilliant power of the lining. The original fragments are reproduced on the left of each page, with Carson’s translations on the right, so you can see how she’s used brackets and space to illuminate the fragments that are present, lifting them out of profound absence into startling beauty.


Finally Martin Edmond on what he loved about editing the new Alan Brunton anthology:

Beyond the Ohlala Mountains Alan Brunton; eds. Michele Leggott & Martin Edmond (Titus Books, March 2014). The pleasure for me is in seeing such a handsome presentation of a selection of poems from a corpus I have been speaking in my head all my adult life; and that these resonant, intelligent, strange and resolutely engagé poems are now available for anyone to read.