Tag Archives: Otago University Press

Poetry Shelf archives: an interview with our new Poet Laureate David Eggleton

To celebrate the announcement of our new Poet Laureate, David Eggleton, I have scoured the Poetry Shelf archives and rediscovered this interview. I welcome David as Poet Laureate: he is a charismatic poet and performer, and a longtime ambassador for poetry in Aotearoa. It is good to have a Dunedin-based Laureate.

I posted this interview in 2015 on the publication of The Conch Shell (OUP). Since then The Conch Trumpet won the Poetry Award at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He has held the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry (2016) and published edgeland and other poems (OUP, 2018).

 

An interview with David Egggleton

 

Screen Shot 2019-08-26 at 8.50.28 AM.pngPhoto 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 (now Emma Neale). 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

Celebrating poetry 2018 in pictures and words

 

m y    h i g h l i g h t s

 

I have had endless opportunities to transform the days and nights of 2018 with poetry musings. What good is poetry? Why write it? Why read it? Because it energises. Because it connects with the world on the other side of these hills and bush views. Because it gives me goose bumps and it makes me feel and think things.

I am fascinated by the things that stick – the readings I replay in my head – the books I finish and then read again within a week – the breathtaking poem I can’t let go. So much more than I write of here!

I have also invited some of the poets I mention to share their highlights.

 

2018: my year of poetry highlights

I kicked started an audio spot on my blog with Chris Tse reading a poem and it meant fans all round the country could hear how good he is. Like wow! Will keep this feature going in 2019.

Wellington Readers and Writers week was a definite highlight – and, amidst all the local and international stars, my standout session featured a bunch of Starling poets. The breathtaking performances of Tayi Tibble and essa may ranapiri made me jump off my seat like a fan girl. I got to post esssa’s poem on the blog.

To get to do an email conversation with Tayi after reading Poūkahangatus (VUP) her stunning debut collection – was an absolute treat. I recently reread our interview and was again invigorated by her poetry engagements, the way she brings her whanau close, her poetry confidence, her fragilities, her song. I love love love her poetry.

My second standout event was the launch of tātai whetū edited by Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis and published by Seraph Press. Lots of the women read with their translators. The room overflowed with warmth, aroha and poetry.

At the same festival I got to MC Selina Tusitala Marsh and friends at the National Library and witness her poetry charisma. Our Poet Laureate electrifies a room with poems (and countless other venues!), and I am in awe of the way she sparks poetry in so many people in so many places.

I also went to my double poetry launch of the year. Chris Tse’s  He’s So MASC (AUP) – the book moved and delighted me to bits and I was inspired to do an email conversation with him for Poetry Shelf. He was so genius in his response. Anna Jackson’s Pasture and Flock: New and Selected Poems (AUP) delivers the quirkiest, unexpected, physical, cerebral poetry around. The book inspired another email conversation for the blog.

Tusiata Avia exploded my heart at her event with her cousin Victor Rodger; she read her challenging Unity and astonishing epileptic poems. Such contagious strength amidst such fragility my nerve endings were hot-wired (can that be done?). In a session I chaired on capital cities and poets, Bill Manhire read and spoke with such grace and wit the subject lit up. Capital city connections were made.

When Sam Duckor-Jones’s debut collection People from the Pit Stand Up (VUP) arrived, both the title and cover took me to the couch to start reading until I finished. All else was put on hold. I adore this book with its mystery and revelations, its lyricism and sinew; and doing a snail-paced email conversation was an utter pleasure.

I have long been a fan of Sue Wootton’s poetry with its sumptuous treats for the ear. So I was delighted to see The Yield (OUP) shortlisted for the 2018 NZ Book Awards. This is a book that sticks. I was equally delighted to see Elizabeth Smither win with her Night Horses (AUP) because her collection features poems I just can’t get out of my head. I carry her voice with me, having heard her read the poems at a Circle of Laureates event. I also loved Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful (VUP), a debut that won best first Book. How this books sings with freshness and daring and originality.

I did a ‘Jane Arthur has  won the Sarah Broom Poetry Award and Eileen Meyers picked her’ dance in my kitchen and then did an anxious flop when I found Eileen couldn’t make the festival. But listening to Jane read before I announced the winner I felt she had lifted me off the ground her poems were so good. I was on stage and people were watching.

Alison Glenny won the Kathleen Grattan Award and Otago University Press published The Farewell Tourist, her winning collection. We had a terrific email conversation. This book has taken up permanent residence in my head because I can’t stop thinking about the silent patches, the mystery, the musicality, the luminous lines, the Antarctica, the people, the losses, the love. And the way writing poetry can still be both fresh and vital. How can poetry be so good?!

I went to the HoopLA book launch at the Women’s Bookshop and got to hear three tastes from three fabulous new collections: Jo Thorpe’s This Thin Now, Elizabeth Welsh’s Over There a Mountain and Reihana Robinson’s Her limitless Her. Before they began, I started reading Reihana’s book and the mother poems at the start fizzed in my heart. I guess it’s a combination of how a good a poem is and what you are feeling on the day and what you experienced at some point in the past. Utter magic. Have now read all three and I adore them.

At Going West I got to chair Helen Heath, Chris Tse and Anna Jackson (oh like a dream team) for the Wellington and poetry session. I had the anxiety flowing (on linking city and poet again) but forgot all that as I became entranced by their poems and responses. Such generosity in sharing themselves in public – it not only opened up poetry writing but also the complicated knottiness of being human. Might sound corny but there you go. Felt special.

Helen Heath’s new collection Are Friends Eectric? (VUP) was another book that blew me apart with its angles and smoothness and provocations. We conversed earlier this year by email.

A new poetry book by former Poet Laureate Cilla McQueen is always an occasion to celebrate. Otago University Press have released Poeta: Selected and new poems this year. It is a beautiful edition curated with love and shows off the joys of Cilla’s poetry perfectly.

Two anthologies to treasure: because I love short poems Jenny Bornholdt’s gorgeous anthology Short Poems of New Zealand. And Steve Braunias’s The Friday Poem because he showcases an eclectic range of local of poets like no other anthology I know. I will miss him making his picks on Fridays (good news though Ashleigh Young is taking over that role).

 

Highlights from some poets

 

Sam Duckor-Jones

I spent six weeks reading & writing poems with the students of Eketahuna School. They were divided on the merits of James Brown’s Come On Lance. It sparked a number of discussions & became a sort of touchstone. Students shared the poems they’d written & gave feedback: it’s better than Come On Lance, or, it’s not as good as Come On Lance, or, shades of Come On Lance. Then someone would ask to hear Come On Lance again & half the room would cheer & half the room would groan. Thanks James Brown for Come On Lance.

 

Hannah Mettner

My fave poetry thing all year has been the beautiful Heartache Festival that Hana Pera Aoake and Ali Burns put on at the start of the year! Spread over an afternoon and evening, across two Wellington homes, with readings and music and so much care and aroha. I wish all ‘literary festivals’ had such an atmosphere of openness and vulnerability!

 

Jane Arthur

Poetry-related things made up a lot of my highlights this year. I mean, obviously, winning the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize was … pretty up there. I’m still, like, “Me?! Whaaaat!” about it. I discovered two things after the win. First, that it’s possible to oscillate between happy confidence and painful imposter syndrome from one minute to the next. And second, that the constant state of sleep deprivation brought on by having a baby is actually strangely good for writing poetry. It puts me into that semi-dream-brain state that helps me see the extra-weirdness in everything. I wrote almost a whole collection’s worth of poems (VUP, 2020) in the second half of the year, thanks broken sleep!

A recent highlight for me was an event at Wellington’s LitCrawl: a conversation between US-based poet Kaveh Akbar and Kim Hill. I’m still processing all its gems – hopefully a recording will show up soon. Another was commissioning Courtney Sina Meredith to write something (“anything,” I said) for NZ Poetry Day for The Sapling, and getting back a moving reminder of the importance of everyone’s stories

This year I read more poetry than I have in ages, and whenever I enjoyed a book I declared it my favourite (I always do this). However, three local books have especially stayed with me and I will re-read them over summer: the debuts by Tayi Tibble and Sam Duckor-Jones, and the new Alice Miller. Looking ahead, I can’t wait for a couple of 2019 releases: the debut collections by essa may ranapiri and Sugar Magnolia Wilson.

 

Elizabeth Smither

Having Cilla McQueen roll and light me a cigarette outside the Blyth

Performing Arts Centre in Havelock North after the poets laureate

Poemlines: Coming Home reading (20.10.2018) and then smoking together,

cigarettes in one hand and tokotoko in the other. Then, with the relief that

comes after a reading, throwing the cigarette down into a bed of pebbles, hoping

the building doesn’t catch on fire.

 

Selina Tusitala Marsh

To perform my ‘Guys Like Gauguin’ sequence (from Fast Talking PI) in Tahiti at the Salon du Livre, between an ancient Banyan Tree and a fruiting Mango tree, while a French translator performs alongside me and Tahitians laugh their guts out!

Thanks Bougainville
For desiring ‘em young
So guys like Gauguin
Could dream and dream
Then take his syphilitic body
Downstream…

 

Chris Tse

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This year I’ve been lucky enough to read my work in some incredible settings, from the stately dining room at Featherston’s Royal Hotel, to a church-turned-designer-clothing-store in Melbourne’s CBD. But the most memorable reading I’ve done this year was with fellow Kiwis Holly Hunter, Morgan Bach and Nina Powles in a nondescript room at The Poetry Cafe in London, which the three of them currently call home. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday that day, but we still managed to coax people into a dark windowless room to listen to some New Zealand poetry for a couple of hours. This is a poetry moment I will treasure for many years to come.

 

Sue Wootton

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing and reading plenty of poems by plenty of poets this year. But far and away the most rejuvenating poetry experience for me during 2018 was working with the children at Karitane School, a small primary school on the East Otago coast. I’m always blown away by what happens when kids embark on the poetry journey. Not only is the exploration itself loads of fun, but once they discover for themselves the enormous potentiality in language – it’s just go! As they themselves wrote: “Plant the seeds and grow ideas / an idea tree! Sprouting questions … / Bloom the inventions / Fireworks of words …” So I tip my cap to these young poets, in awe of what they’ve already made and intrigued to find out what they’ll make next.

 

Cilla McQueen

1

25.11.18

Found on the beach – is it a fossil?

jawbone? hunk of coral? No – it’s a wrecked,

fire-blackened fragment of Janola bottle,

its contorted plastic colonised by weeds

and sandy encrustations, printed instructions

still visible here and there, pale blue.

Growing inside the intact neck, poking out

like a pearly beak, a baby oyster.

 

2

Living in Bluff for twenty-two years now, I’ve sometimes felt out on a limb, in the tree of New Zealand poetry. I appreciate the journey my visitors undertake to reach me. A reluctant traveller myself, a special poetry moment for me was spent with Elizabeth Smither and Bill and Marion Manhire at Malo restaurant, in Havelock North. Old friends from way back – I haven’t seen them often but poetry and art have always connected us

 

Tayi Tibble

In September, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend The Rosario International Poetry Festival in Argentina. It was poetic and romantic; late night dinners in high rise restaurants, bottles of dark wine served up like water, extremely flowery and elaborate cat-calling (Madam, you are a candy!) and of course sexy spanish poetry and sexy poets.

On our last night, Marcela, Eileen and I broke off and went to have dinner at probably what is the only Queer vegan hipster restaurant/boutique lingerie store/experimental dj venue in the whole of Argentina, if not the world. Literally. We couldn’t find a vegetable anywhere else. We went there, because Eileen had beef with the chef at the last place and also we had too much actual beef generally, but I digress.

So anyway there we are eating a vegan pizza and platter food, chatting. I accidentally say the C word like the dumbass crass kiwi that I am forgetting that it’s like, properly offensive to Americans. Eileen says they need to take a photo of this place because it’s camp af. I suggest that Marcela and I kiss for the photo to gay it up because I’m a Libra and I’m lowkey flirting for my life because it’s very hot and I’ve basically been on a red-wine buzz for five days. Eileen gets a text from Diana, one of the festival organisers telling them they are due to read in 10 minutes. We are shocked because the male latin poets tend to read for up to 2584656 times their allocated time slots, so we thought we had plenty of time to like, chill and eat vegan. Nonetheless poetry calls, so we have to dip real quick, but when we step outside, despite it being like 1546845 degrees the sky opens up and it’s pouring down. Thunder. Lightening. A full on tropical South American storm!

It’s too perfect it’s surreal. Running through the rain in South America. Marcella and I following Eileen like two hot wet groupies. Telling each other, “no you look pretty.” Feeling kind of primal. Throwing our wet dark curls around. The three of us agree that this is lowkey highkey very sexy. Cinematic and climatic. Eventually we hail a taxi because time is pressing. Though later that night, and by night I mean at like 4am, Marcella and I, very drunk and eating the rest of our Vegan pizza, confessed our shared disappointment that we couldn’t stay in the rain in Argentina…  just for a little while longer….

We get to the venue and make a scene; just in time and looking like we’ve just been swimming. Eileen, soaking wet and therefore looking cooler than ever, reads her poem An American Poem while Marcella and I admire like fangirls with foggy glasses and starry eyes.

“And I am your president.” Eileen reads.

“You are! You are!” We both agree.

 

Alison Glenny

A poetry moment/reading. ‘The Body Electric’ session at this year’s Litcrawl was a celebration of queer and/or non-binary poets (Emma Barnes, Harold Coutts, Sam Duckor-Jones, essa may ranapiri, Ray Shipley ). Curated and introduced by poet Chris Tse (looking incredibly dapper in a sparkly jacket) it was an inspiring antidote to bullying, shame, and the pressure to conform.

A book. Not a book of poetry as such, but a book by a poet (and perhaps it’s time to be non-binary about genre as well as gender?). Reading Anne Kennedy’s The Ice Shelf I was struck by how unerringly it highlights the salient characteristics of this strange era we call the anthropocene: crisis and denial, waste and disappearance, exploitation, and the destruction caused by broken relationships and an absence of care.

A publishing event. Seraph Press published the lovely tātai whetū: seven Māori women poets in translation, with English and Te Reo versions of each poem on facing pages (and a sprinkling of additional stars on some pages). An invitation, as Karyn Parangatai writes in her similarly bilingual review of the book in Landfall Review online (another publishing first?) ‘to allow your tongue to tease the Māori words into life’.

Best writing advice received in 2018. ‘Follow the signifier’.

 

essa may ranapiri

There are so many poetry highlights for me this year, so many good books that have left me buzzing for the verse! First book I want to mention is Cody-Rose Clevidence’s second poetry collection flung Throne. It has pulled me back into a world of geological time and fractured identity.

Other books that have resonated are Sam Ducker-Jone’s People from the Pit Stand Up and Tayi Tibble’s Poūkahangatus, work from two amazingly talented writers and friends who I went through the IIML Masters course with. After pouring over their writing all year in the workshop environment seeing their writing in book form brought me to tears. So proud of them both!

Written out on a type-writer, A Bell Made of Stones by queer Chamorro poet, Lehua M. Taitano, explores space, in the world and on the page. They engage with narratives both indigenous and colonial critiquing the racist rhetoric and systems of the colonial nation state. It’s an incredible achievement, challenging in form and focus.

I’ve been (and continue to be) a part of some great collaborative poetry projects, a poetry collection; How It Colours Your Tongue with Loren Thomas and Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor, a poetry chapbook; Eater Be Eaten with Rebecca Hawkes, and a longform poetry zine; what r u w/ a broken heart? with Hana Pera Aoake. Working with these people has and continues to be a such a blessing!

I put together a zine of queer NZ poetry called Queer the Pitch. Next year I’m going to work to release a booklet of trans and gender diverse poets, I’m looking forward to working with more talented queer voices!

The most important NZ poetry book to be released this year, it would have to be tātai whetū. It was published as part of Seraph Press’s Translation Series. It features work from seven amazing wāhine poets; Anahera Gildea, Michelle Ngamoki, Tru Paraha, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Maraea Rakuraku, Dayle Takitimu and Alice Te Punga Somerville. These poems are all accompanied by te reo Māori translations of the work. I can only imagine that it would be a super humbling experience to have your work taken from English and returned to the language of the manu. By happenstance I was able to attend the launch of tātai whetū; to hear these pieces read in both languages was a truly special experience. It’s so important that we continue to strive to uplift Māori voices, new words brought forth from the whenua should be prized in our literary community, thanks to Seraph for providing such a special place for these poems. Ka rawe!

 

Anna Jackson

This has been a year of particularly memorable poetry moments for me, from the launch of Seraph Press’s bilingual anthology Tātai Whetū in March and dazzling readings by Mary Rainsford and Tim Overton at a Poetry Fringe Open Mike in April, to Litcrawl’s inspiring installation in November of essa may ranapiri and Rebecca Hawkes hard at work on their collaborative poetry collection in a little glass cage/alcove at the City Art Gallery. They hid behind a table but their creative energy was palpable even through the glass. I would also like to mention a poetry salon hosted by Christine Brooks, at which a dog-and-cheese incident of startling grace brilliantly put into play her theory about the relevance of improv theatre theory to poetry practice. Perhaps my happiest poetry moment of the year took place one evening when I was alone in the house and, having cooked an excellent dinner and drunken rather a few small glasses of shiraz, started leafing through an old anthology of English verse reading poems out loud to myself, the more the metre the better. But the poems I will always return to are poems I have loved on the page, and this year I have been returning especially to Sam Duckor-Jones’s People from the Pit Stand Up, while I look forward to seeing published Helen Rickerby’s breath-taking new collection, How to Live, that has already dazzled me in draft form.

 

 

happy summer days

and thank you for visiting my bog

in 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Cilla McQueen’s sumptuous Poeta: selected and new poems

 

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Cilla McQueen  Poeta: selected and new poems Otago University Press 2018

 

Cilla McQueen’s new collection of poems is a treasure. The publisher has acknowledged Cilla’s standing as a poet by producing the most beautiful edition of poems out this year: hard back, gorgeous cover, exquisitely designed.

 

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The poems are arranged in ‘rooms’ or preoccupations that form a thematic span and are largely chronological.  The South Island landscape, cities and people are strong feature along with riddles, seasons, time, friendships, hens and the kitchen table. Some of my favourite poems by Cilla are here along with some delightful new discoveries. I have always admired her poetry with its deft musical chords, attention to detail and intimate moods. She has the ability to re-catch a moment or place that matters to her and allow it to shine for the reader.

 

Here again.

Dark’s falling. Stand

on the corner of the verandah

in the glass cold clear

night, looking out

to emerald and ruby harbour

lights

 

from ‘Homing In’ (1982)

 

This is the power of this anthology. It takes you to places and you become embedded in the scene.

 

thin waterskin over underfoot cockles here and there old timber

and iron orange and purple barnacled crab shells snails green

karengo small holes

 

from ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’   (1982)

 

You are also transported into the heart of friendships in poems that generate warmth and intimacy.

 

I visit my friend’s kitchen.

There are roses on the floor

 

and a table with pears.

Her face is bare in the light.

 

from ‘Joanna’  (2005)

 

I find these friendship poems moving as as though just in the moment of reading I am invited into a life.

 

Dear Hone, by your Matua Tokotoko

sacred in my awkward arms,

its cool black mocking

my shallow grasp

 

I was

utterly blown away

 

from ‘Letter to Hone’  (2010)

 

Cilla’s language is always on the move: pirouetting, linking, breaking, repeating, echoing, circling, defying gravity. Her poem ‘Anti Gravity’ takes me to self seeking bearings but also to a poem both establishing and defying them.

 

touch fingertips and out into

blue suede fields clear coloured with

dew sparkling prisms in sunlight

how fast the changes are

like balancing on a big beach ball

in bare feet running backwards

burnout she said aagh I thought burnout

sounds like a rocket stage falling away

 

from ‘Anti Gravity’  (1984)

 

I often read the ultra agile ‘Dog Wobble when I visit schools and the children are instantly alive with the possibility of words. Here she is being equally playful – the lines in the second stanza run in reverse order:

 

Poem a poem

the inside poem

the words other in

inside drawn eyeless

toe to top fingered

light, gnostic

valiant, innocent

fruit and rind.

 

from ‘Poem’  (2010)

 

There are also sections from Cilla’s terrific poetic memoir In a Slant Light published in 2016. I wrote a rave review about this book on my blog and wanted it win book awards and find a zillion readers.

 

Soup simmering on the coal range.

I’ve brought a loaf of bread. He pours red wine,

holds the glass up to the light.

Shades of red.

In harmony.

 

from In a Slant Light   (2016)

 

There are so many rewarding routes through Cilla’s poetry ; I love the way she surprises then holds me as in ‘City Notes’ from 2017:

 

How much does the city weigh?

The earth beneath it shudders.

 

Thunderstorm kicking around.

They go on making concrete.

 

A recent poem invites us into her writing space which includes a study, a lounge and a kitchen, a view and the wind outside.

 

Sun bleached poetry spines. On the arm-rest of my chair lies a grey and white

baby possum’s skin, extremely soft to stroke.

 

Downstairs, etched on the glass door between the lounge and the kitchen, art

deco style, a slender dancing nymph.

 

The kitchen looks over the front lawn, low fence, footpath and the

road, a young cabbage tree beside the wooden letterbox.

 

from ‘Writing Place’  (2017)

 

This is a book to treasure. Cilla has won the NZ Book Award for Poetry three times, she has received an Hon. Litt. D. from the University of Otago and the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry, and she was the New Zealand Poet Laureate 2009 -11. She lives in the southern port of Motupōhue near Bluff.

I love this book.

 

Otago University Press page

A poem from David Eggleton’s new collection: Edgeland and other poems

 

Identity Parade

The man who fell to earth
The man who gave birth
The man who stole the sun
The amazing transparent man
The incredible shrinking man
The flying disc man from Mars
The man of a thousand faces
The man who knew too much
The man who saw tomorrow
The man who was Thursday
The man with the deadly lens
The man they couldn’t hang
The most dangerous man alive
The man who died twice
The man with the oxblood leather brogues
The man who never was
The man who never returned
The man who was not alone
The man named Dave
The man in the shadows
The man who made way
The man who was in a rush
The man who mistook the moon for a candy bar —
a dream for a Cadillac
a riverbed for a road,
a flowerbed for a home,
a treetop for a diving board,
— that man.

 

 

©David Eggleton Edgeland and other poems  Otago University Press 2018

 

 

David Eggleton is a poet and writer who lives in Dunedin. Earlier this year he held the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

Otago University Press page

 

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Poetry Shelf in conversation with Alison Glenny

 

 

 

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Alison Glenny was born in Christchurch and now lives in Paekākāriki. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and she has a postgraduate certificate in Antarctic Studies from the University of Canterbury. She has taught creative writing at Whitireia New Zealand. Her poetry has appeared in print and online, in journals and anthologies. Bill Manhire selected her as the 2017 winner of the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award and I can see why. The resulting book, The Farewell Tourist, recently published by Otago University Press, is poetry pleasure at every level. I utterly love it. It is so prismatic in its making and effect every time I pick it up to reread I feel like I am holding a new book.

To celebrate The Farewell Tourist Alison and I embarked on a slow-paced email conversation.

 

 

Each of his letters was a tiny museum, a footnote to an imaginary

novel. ‘I searched the box of negatives to discover the keepsakes,

but they had vanished in the silence of the crevasses.’

 

from ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’

 

 

Paula: Your new collection is a joy to read. It is so rich in silence, enigma and erasure I wondered how you would feel talking about it?

Alison: Kia ora Paula, thank you for those kind words. And yes, it’s probably true that I don’t find writing about myself the easiest thing. I can only promise to answer your questions as non-cryptically and with as little self-erasure as possible!

On the subject of form (implied I think by your reference to erasure), can I say that the form you have devised for these interviews seems very appealing to me – like a super-relaxed game of tennis, or a parlour game where you write something on a piece of paper, fold it and give it to the next person, and eventually discover you’ve generated a piece of writing.

 

She dreamed that winter was a little cabinet. When she unlocked

it, she discovered a small white dog.

 

from ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’

 

Paula: Oh you have caught exactly why I love doing this kind of conversation. Min-a-ret’s latest issue resembles the paper parlour game in that poets created poems by handing over the accruing poem with only the last line showing. There seems to be such delight in the surprising connections.

When did you first find delight in poetry? As a child? As a teenager?

Alison: I grew up in a bookish household. My father, whose childhood was marked by a certain amount of hardship and who left school very young, could probably be described as a first generation reader. As a child, my first encounters with poetry were through anthologies like Geoffrey Grigson’s The Cherry Tree, which combined extracts from Shakespeare or the Metaphysical poets with traditional counting rhymes or riddles. I remember it included his own free verse translation of an immensely sad and beautiful poem by Hölderlin. And at school there were the Voices anthologies, which mixed up short prose pieces, poems, and visual images, and which I recall as having a sort of modernist rigour that I found both alluring and slightly frightening. As a teenager I mainly read science fiction.

 

Paula: Can you pick a couple of poets (or poetry books) who really mattered to you between these early readings and recent times?

Alison: That’s a tough question! How much space do we have? Going right back, I would say Bill Manhire. My copy of Zoetropes has remained with me through shifts and relocations of home or country. As someone who leans towards prose, I am drawn to hybrid forms such as prose poetry or loosely narrative sequences. Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, Dinah Hawkin’s Small Stories of Devotion, Rachel O’Neill’s One Human in Height. Tranströmer’s The Sorrow Gondola. This is a very partial list. Also I’m wary of lists, as they tend to exclude more than they include.

When I’m working on a project I feel a bit like I’m scrolling through radio stations, hoping to pick up something that resonates on a similar frequency. When I was writing The Farewell Tourist I was reading Bernadette Hall’s Antarctic poems, and I discovered poets like Jenny Boully and Kristina Marie Darling, who create entire books from prose fragments and found forms such as footnotes that refer to works that don’t exist. I am drawn to these works, which suggest the possibilities of constructing emotional landscapes from suggestion and from things that aren’t there.

 

The absence of daylight was partly compensated for by an

excellent little blubber lamp, which burned with a clear white

flame.

 

from ‘Footnotes for a Heroic Age’

 

 

Paula: Oh I love that book of Dinah’s. It showed me that poetry can feel and think and play with form and be acutely aware of how things are for women.

Your debut collection is so dependent on what is not there as much as what is there. But let’s go to Antarctica first. What drew you to Antarctic Studies at the University of Canterbury?

Alison: I’d been trying to write about Antarctica for a while, but wasn’t very satisfied with what I was writing. I felt as if my imagination kept coming up against the limits imposed by my lack of actual experience. The Antarctic Studies course is multidisciplinary, so it seemed like an opportunity to learn more about all aspects of Antarctica – ecology, governance, current debates around issues like climate, tourism, and resources. It also includes a field trip to the Ross Sea area, and for someone like me who isn’t a scientist, this was a rare opportunity to travel to Antarctica and experience the ice first-hand.

 

XVI

Some nights the staircase disappeared and was replaced by

an ice tongue. She improvised crampons using nails, spiked

boots to descend the slick surface. In the morning the

house was back to rights, although at moments the night

would impose itself unexpectedly. Gazing at the hinge of

her jewellery box, for example, she would be seized by a

sudden vertigo. Overtaken by a conviction that the dressing

table, room, and everything in it had detached from the house

and was floating away, calving new impossibilities as it drifted

from the dynamic boundary.

 

from ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

 

Paula: Before we move to the poetry what were some key astonishments and surprises when you stayed in Antarctica? What was it like to write in situ?

Alison: The moment of arriving felt very euphoric. After eight hours of noise and vibration in the belly of a Hercules you emerge from the aircraft into what feels almost like a bowl of dazzling whiteness and light, surrounded by mountains and filled with incredibly pure air. In that moment Antarctica feels like everything you ever dreamed it might be and more. Most of my time in Antarctica was spent ‘in the field’ (ie a tent) but at Scott Base I got to spend a bit of time in the library, which has windows on three sides. I’d look up from what I was working on and see the scenery with its views of Mt Erebus and other landmarks. It conveyed a powerful feeling of thereness. Being able to work at midnight in natural light was also a highlight. I did more drawing than writing while I was there.

 

Paula: Your glorious new collection is a book of parts – a sequence, a series of footnotes, an appendix or two – but each part is highly-charged poetry. The Antarctic is a thread that stitches the pieces together in patterns of disappearance, mystery and snow. What mattered to you as you wrote?

Alison: The direction it took was probably born out of a number of encounters. One was with a language of science and scientific concepts that was largely new to me. Because I didn’t understand it properly, it prompted other, improper or fictitious associations. Another was with the literature of Heroic Era exploration. As others have commented, it’s a body of work in which the project of Edwardian imperial exploration is pursued in an environment so extreme and inhospitable to human life, as to render its goals strangely futile, while infusing everyday experience with an almost surreal intensity. One of my essays was a review of autobiographical narratives by the first women to visit Antarctica, so acknowledging the specifically gendered nature of that early Antarctic experience was also at the front of my mind. But I also believe that we view history through a lens that reflects our present concerns. Heroic Era narratives of climate-related suffering and death irresistibly prompt associations with our current concerns about the effects of human-induced climate change. We are living during the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs, but it can be hard to know not only what to do about it, but even how to feel about it. While I don’t address the topic of extinction in the book directly, it has a displaced influence on both the form and subject-matter.

 

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from ‘Footnotes to A History of the Honeymoon’

 

Paula: Thus the repeating motifs and concern with disappearance. I was really drawn to the footnote sequence where the page is mostly white space and the footnotes hug the bottom. I love the way the white space reverberates as snow, silence and missing material before you read the footnotes. The footnotes seem a perfect response to the foreign, the alien, the difficult to write. Would it be pushing it too far to think of the way some narratives are footnotes to history rather than the main argument? Perhaps those by the first women who wrote Antarctica autobiographies?  I was musing on what it might be like to build a sequence of footnotes that unsettle an actual history or travel book written through a singular lens. Where do your musings on footnotes lead you?

 

Alison: I am very much in sympathy with your idea for that work, and I would love to read it!

Your comments suggest one of the things that appeals to me about the use of footnotes as primary text, which is the invitation this seems to offer to readers to imagine their versions of what that missing primary text might be. As a writer who tends to rely on found material, I find that the distinction between author and reader can be fluid. As a child I was drawn to works such as cookbooks that provided blank pages at the end for you to add your own notes, to personalise the book. The idea that as the given text runs out, your own begins. I agree with your suggestion that this idea is particularly appealing for those whose experiences are marginal or under-represented – a kind of footnote to the official narratives or histories, as you put it.

But to go back to your previous question about what it is like to write in Antarctica, most of the writing I did was limited to tiny notes or observations scribbled in pencil (because pens are less reliable in the cold). So the footnote form was probably partly an attempt to preserve a sense of that way of working. There also seems to be an observational quality to the footnote. Even though its function is to refer to something else, it can feel slightly self-contained, outside narrative. In contrast to more conventional narrative, writing in footnotes can be a way of slowing down one’s reading of a text, and focussing on single objects or moments. Temporal sequentiality is downplayed in favour of an emphasis on spatial arrangement. I also have a longtime interest in collage, and the way in which the placing of incongruous elements in proximity can disrupt conventional ways of viewing, and generate unexpected effects.

 

Paula: The poem as collage is interesting. I love the idea of slowing the reading process down. This happens when you define a single word ‘erasure’ and create a poem. I was reminded of the time I tried writing online poems where if you clicked on a word it would lead you to a definition or refinement of that word. And you could keep clicking and refining. I love the way ‘Erasure’ in ‘Appendix 1’ offers pleasure in itself but also stands as a sequence of doorways into reading the collection.

 

Erasure

1.An act or instance of erasing. 2. The removal of all traces

of something: obliteration. 3. The state of having been

erased; total blankness. 4. The place or mark, as on a piece of

paper, where something has been erased. There were several

erasures on the paper. 5. Crossing out, striking out, blotting

out, effacement, expunging. 6. A tendency to ignore or

conceal an element of society. 7. Removal of something in

order to reveal another: for example, the discovery that the

beloved has been replaced by a set of measurements.

8. The practice of concealing part of a poem by covering it

with snow.

 

 

Do you do this as reader? Do you stall on individual words? Or collect words as keepsakes?

Alison: I do get slightly obsessed with certain words, as if they might hold the key to a larger idea or work. In general, I am drawn to the way that entries in dictionaries that provide extensive etymologies, like the OED, tend to form small narratives of transformation and expansion, in which an early or primary meaning (usually imported from another language) accrues further applications or secondary meanings, or travels from one part of speech to another. There’s an interesting tension between repetition (reinstating a meaning in slightly different ways, makes it more emphatic) and slide – the tendency for meaning to wander into other contexts and nuances. The inclusion of historical examples of these usages makes these entries another kind of fragmented text or collage, where things brush up against each other in unexpected ways.

Interestingly it’s the most common, everyday words that tend to be richest in terms of this kind of multiplicity. A reminder of the kind of amnesia we routinely practice whenever we use language –  partly, as you suggest, to save time. At the other end of the spectrum, glossaries focused on a particular subject can be productive places for word-hunting.  I found The International Classification for Seasonal Snow on the Ground – which includes terms such as ‘snow penitents’ – particularly evocative.

 

Paula: I loved thumbing through dictionaries as a child, especially in bed when I should have been sleeping. I wonder how that would work on the internet?

The single word is like a single detail in a poem. Your collection savours the small, the slightly off beat as well as the boundless, the snow that stretches on and on.

 

She dreamed she was on a ship that was sinking. She could

see the gleaming surface of the iceberg, feel the cold water

rise above her ankles. But she was seated with the violins

and preoccupied by details; the amount of rosin on her bow,

a false note from the woodwind, and the frayed portion of

sleeve at her wrist – did it show?

 

from ‘X’ in ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

Often I am drawn to a different way of looking at the world as I read these poems. Our viewfinder is altered. What sort of things did you hope for in your use of detail?

 

Alison: First of all, let me say how impressed I am that you read dictionaries as a child!

I do agree that smallness is a focus of the collection, and that this is partly an attempt to convey a kind of inadequacy of the individual against larger forces. In the particular fragment you quote I was trying to describe that kind of disproportion in relation to the experience of anxiety. The strangeness of worrying about something relatively trivial, like a detail of one’s appearance, while ignoring the much larger problem of being on a sinking ship.  It seemed fitting to portray this via a dream, given the tendency of dreams to reconfigure elements of everyday life in ways that often bring anxiety to the fore, while representing it in absurd ways.

 

Paula: A number of poets – Mary Ruefle and Selina Tusitala Marsh, for example – white or black out portions of texts to create new poems. I am fascinated by your ‘Correspondence’ sequence where you have taken fragments from The Shackleton Letters: Behind the scenes of the Nimrod Exhibition (edited by Regina W Daly). You create a poem with words crossed out that offers two readings: one that includes the crossed out words and one that doesn’t. Again you are generating glorious poetic movement. But perhaps also unsettling things. Can you tell me a little about what it was like reading Shackleton’s letters and then producing poetry from them?

 

 

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from ‘Appendix 2 Correspondence’

 

Alison: Mary Ruefle’s ‘A Little White Shadow’ is one of my favourite erasure-based works, partly because of the way that her use of white-out to erase the original text (a ghost story) transforms it almost literally into a shadow or ghost. There is a tension between the contrary movements of embodiment and disembodiment. Similarly, Selina Tusitala Marsh’s dark ink erasures seem to pay homage to the title of the source text, Wendt’s novel ‘Pouliuli’. The form conveys or enacts the subject-matter of the work in an almost literal way.

I find collections of letters, or similar historical documents, an interesting way of telling a story. On the one hand there is the sense of intimacy and immediacy that comes from reading the words of the participants, written close to the moment they are describing. But there are also large gaps in the narrative and the reader has to work to connect the pieces. In the case of the Shackleton letters what interested me was less the behind the scenes view of the Nimrod Expedition –such as Shackleton’s conflict with Scott over where to locate his Antarctic base, or the fact that he was writing love letters to two women simultaneously – than the editor’s descriptions of the damage to the paper on which some of the letters are written. Again, these feel like a literal record of fragmentation and incompleteness that emphasises the distance, both spatial and temporal, that these messages sought to bridge.

 

Paula: I think therein lie the delights of your collection; as readers we navigate both intimacy and distance, visibility and absence, musicality and silence.

It has been such a pleasure moving into a close focus on your poems. To finish can you name five New Zealand poetry books you have utterly loved for different reasons?

Alison: Apart from those already mentioned earlier? Bill Manhire’s The Victims of Lightning for the exquisite melancholy of the title poem, which also shows the potential for found poetry to express the profoundly personal. Cliff Fell’s The Adulterer’s Bible for introducing Fidel Serif and his search for a missing word. Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points for its wonderful poem about Erebus and Terror. John Newton’s Family Songbook for its entanglement of place and memory and seemingly effortless narrative. Rhian Gallagher’s Shift and Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful for proving that lyric poetry can be both a passionate and precise account of lived experience, especially queer experience. Lynn Jenner’s work (in general) for its hybridity and experimentation with form. Therese Lloyd’s The Facts for creating a body of work in relation to another poet. Is that five already? More than five? OK, I’d better stop.

 

I

She would wait for him in the morning room, seated on a

velvet sofa. Each time he visited she was delighted when

he produced a bouquet of flowers, summoned out of thin

air. He spoke of his belief that materials absorb the

identity of those who handle them. Sometimes their

fingers would touch during the examination of an object.

The inevitable sparks were part of what he called the

magnetic process.

from ‘The Magnetic Process’

 

 

 

Otago University Press page

Excerpts from The Farewell Tourist at the Fourth Floor

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf in conversation with Majella Cullinane

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Majella Cullinane, originally from Ireland, has lived in New Zealand since 2008. She graduated with an MLitt in Creative Writing from St Andrew’s University in Scotland and her debut collection was published by Salmon Poetry in Ireland. She has received a number of awards including the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University and the 2017 Caselberg International Prize for Poetry. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at Otago University. She lives in Port Chalmers.

Otago University Press has just released Majella’s second collection, Whisper of a Crow’s Wing. It is a terrific read that furnishes a sumptuous bridge between homes, contemplations and experience – with luminous detail, undercurrents and themes. To celebrate the book’s arrival, we embarked on a slowly unfolding email conversation.

 

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The conversation

 

I too find myself in a bedroom now, the reflection of myself in the window,

only the line of my torso, my arms in a white woollen jumper.

Below me the neighbour’s house; behind that a tree stripped by winter.

I am neither idle nor riveted by my eyes, but at this moment

the letters race to catch each other across the space; the sound

in my ears is the piano keys and the slow stretch of bows against strings.

It is the day before the shortest day of the year.

The sky is grey; it has started to rain.

 

from ‘Winter Solstice’

 

 

Paula: The first line of the first poem, ‘Winter Solstice’, stalled me: ‘In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with.’ Is this how it is writing a poem at times? You are writing into the light from the dark? Or the exact opposite?

Majella: I think what I meant is more practical in that I hadn’t opened the curtains. The opening line of my poem is specifically a response or answer to Kinsella’s poem (epigraph) which begins:

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain… (Kinsella)

and I’m saying/opening with:

In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with…(Me) 

 

Paula: Yes! I love the way you set up a conversation. The line is a perfect entrance into the poem itself but, as I stalled on it, I began to think about all the different ways to come to writing a poem. I love the way poetry can sidetrack you and then return you to the heart of a poem. My thinking got quite twisty because I was thinking I write into both dark and light when I begin a poem, always with jolts of surprise as the words hit the page. How is it for you when you write a poem?

Majella: How I come to write a poem varies widely. Generally I tend to let ideas and images simmer or gestate for quite a while first, or I might write a line or two and leave it and then return later. I’m a great believer in free-writing or writing down the page and letting words spill out unhindered, unedited.  I suppose it’s my way of discovering what the poem is about and what it is I want to say. I need to write my way in.  If something is not quite working I often like to move stanzas around. At some point I think there is, as you describe, a kind of jolt of surprise when you see that the poem is taking shape and you know what it’s trying to say.  Rarely, and it’s like a beautiful gift, I will get a poem fully formed, one that doesn’t need too much tweaking. But this is very rare. It is the craft and close attention to each word that I really love about poetry, the way poetry has this magical way of making you stop and notice the seemingly small things in life. Also because I also write fiction I think poetry allows me to access the stiller, more reflective side of my personality.

 

 

III

I watch the slow tide one late February day,

stare into the grey whiteness of sky,

marvelling at the vagary of clouds.

If they could unshackle themselves,

I’d parcel them up with the mountains,

the inlets, the sea,

paint them on canvas,

carry them home under the nook of my arm.

 

from ‘Broad Bay’

 

 

Paula: Simmering and gestating are like the invisible threads of a poem. Stillness along with slow contemplation is such a captivating feature of your poetry. I am also drawn to the sumptuous detail in your poems: pungent, sharp, intriguing, scene building. I am always intrigued by the way details work and the various places it leads me as reader. What does detail do for you in your poems?

Majella: An attention to detail mostly helps me to reconnect with memory and place, and thereby conjure imagery associated with a particular time and place. It also enables me to explore language, and hopefully enrich the essence of a particular poem. The curiosity engendered by specificity or detail also allows me to discover new things. For example, I’m fascinated by NZ flora and fauna which is so specific and unique to this country, and am interested in connecting that uniqueness, which may be taken for granted if you grew up here, to my own experience of being an outsider/immigrant and to my sense of place in the world. Perhaps it is my attempt to root or anchor myself in familiar and unfamiliar landscapes, and for the present and past to coexist and play with or against each other.

 

Paula: Is there one poem where the detail particularly works for you?

 

We’re not there yet, but there are hints: in the pink-red clasp of sorrel,

the cicada easing a pitch lower, shedding its voice. The wind

changing direction like the act of entering a room and forgetting

what it is you came for. The sky tinged in blue-lavender,

spools of cloud whipping over the hills like wounds.

 

from ‘Finale to the Season’

 

 

Majella: I think most of my poems use detail to attempt what I discussed above. ‘Finale to the Season’ juxtaposes details from my past and present to explore the contrasting seasons –  New Zealand’s early autumn, with the reference to the cicada and the grey warbler in the southern hemisphere and in the Northern hemisphere early spring with ‘crows stalking frozen trees’ and also the memory of my parent’s house where my sister and I shared ‘our own narrow bed’. The contrast of the first and third stanza, between the here and there is suspended for a moment, or at least hinted at when I write ‘the season’s murmurings are breached.’ Perhaps what I’m trying to achieve here, at least imaginatively, is that the past and present converge somehow and it is through imagery and connection with place that a momentary connection is possible.

 

The birch collar box lying in the centre of his suitcase the day he had left.

And you wondered about it, whether or not it had been returned;

if he had ever worn such a neat, rigid, clean thing, knee deep in rain and mud,

with the boom of the guns deafening, the smell of the kitchen,

the stove’s heart miles away.

 

from ‘Op Shop, 1985’

 

Paula: Yes – I was really struck by the way some of the poems arc between here and there, New Zealand and Ireland. I was quite moved by them. Another poem that struck me was ‘Op Shop, 1985’. Rather than place, this poem animates people. Do you ever feel poems are a way of anchoring place and people when you have attachments in both hemispheres? Poetry is a way of being at home?

Majella: Absolutely. I’ve lived in New Zealand since 2008 and to be honest it took me a while to settle in. Although there are many similarities between NZ and Ireland there are many differences, and not just with the flora and fauna, which is the most obvious thing but culturally too of course. I am now a dual citizen of Ireland and New Zealand and feel very much at ‘home’ in both countries. I think a big part of that settling-in period, and eventual ease with having a foot in each hemisphere so to speak, was achieved by exploring my feeling and experience through poetry, and the realisation that it’s not one place that necessarily makes a home but rather the people that, as you suggest, animate it whether they be living or dead.

 

Paula: Do you still touch base with Irish poetry?

Majella: Very much so.  There’s a lot going on in Ireland in terms of poetry and fiction at the moment. Favourite Irish and Northern Irish poets include Vona Groarke, Michael Longley, Kerry Hardy, Sinead Morrissey, Eavan Boland just to name a few. But my reading is pretty wide. I also love Scottish and American poetry.

 

Paula: I got to hear Vona at AWF a few years ago. She is so good, and I have loved books by Sinead and Eavan. I also love the way Eavan writes about poetry. I will have to track down the other two! What about New Zealand poets? Are there any that you have really engaged with?

Majella: Rhian Gallagher, Emma Neale and Sue Wootton for their lyrical intensity, striking imagery and attention to form and craft.

 

Paula: Musicality is such a feature of their poetry, both on the page and when they perform. Do you write for the page or is reading aloud equally important? An early New Zealand poet, Eileen Duggan, with familial links back in Ireland, was shaped by Irish song. Not so much individual songs but the love of song, of women singing.  Has Irish singing influenced your poems?

Majella: I read everything I write aloud, both poetry and fiction. Sound is so essential when writing poetry so that each draft I write I’m reading and re-reading it as I go. As for Irish song, I wouldn’t say I’m influenced by Irish singing but I do listen to music while I’m writing/drafting mainly classical music and I love soundtracks. Mind you having said that I do love Irish ballads: Siúil a Rún, She Moved Through the Fair, Raglan Road, etc. so maybe I’ve been influenced subliminally. I certainly used to sing a lot as a young child and had singing and piano lessons. I’ve often said if I didn’t write I probably would have gone into music.

 

You called just after eight. I could hear the longing in your voice

as raw as the air two days earlier when the hills were dusted with snow

and temperatures plummeted. We wrapped your grandson in layers

vest, long johns, hat and gloves. I stayed in and cleaned, found traces of myself

in drawers and cupboards, in scraps of paper and old notebooks, piled

laundry on the bed and folded it.

 

from ‘Compline’

 

Paula: For me the joy of your collection lies in the multiple subjects that depend upon musicality and contemplative movement. The poems engage so intricately with people and place, but there is an emotional undercurrent that also hooks me. I love ‘Compline’, the poem for your mother that catches the ache of distance. There are the tender mother observations in ‘You Say’ and ‘The Little Boy That Got Away’.

In some poems, grief is measured and utterly moving – as in ‘There But For’. I am drawn into the width and depth of being human in your poems. How important is it to write as both mother and daughter? To write the tough experience along with the jubilant and the wonder?

 

Majella: Well, when I first started writing I was a little hesitant to use the personal in poetry, which is why I wrote quite a few dramatic monologues, especially in the first collection. It is a form I still love as it allows me to explore another I and perhaps connect with the latent thespian in me. There’s quite a gap between the first and second collections. In a way that gap mirrors the experience of being both here and there, of becoming a mother in New Zealand, and consequently knowing what it is to be a mother, and how my own mother feels about distance, especially as I’ve been coming and going from Ireland since I was twenty and haven’t lived there since 2004.

Regarding writing about the tough, or difficult in life, well, the older I get I find I need to write about all aspects of being human as you suggest.  Even in the most difficult situations I have encountered, there is, if I look hard enough, and slow enough, a little wonder and hope to be found. I’m reminded of that phrase, the darkest hour is just before dawn. 

 

Paula: Can you pick one poem to post at the end? My collections often have poems that particular matter to me. Do you have one like this?

Majella: One poem that particularly matters to me would be Feather, inspired by Dickinson’s Hope Is The Thing With Feathers.  The idea that until we ‘know’ we can always hope, and even when what is hoped for is not possible we can still feel it to be real somehow – through the power of the imagination.

 

 

Feather                

If only everyday was as simple as listening to birds, their small voices

plucking the grey-blue morning, emboldened on this first day of spring.

We too might dare to hope that what has long been desired is not so far away.

Let’s suppose it is here already, as real as this room’s radiator

switching itself on and off; the thermostat of our longing unhindered

by a dial of hours. Rather it exists in a kind of elsewhere,

or takes form in the wanderer who crosses bridges and borders

without restraint. Better to loosen the tangle of our rough wishes,

of the could-have-beens and might-have-beens and know we had it all,

just for a moment. Beneath the clamour of sounds –

logging trucks rattle to and fro from the port, a dog barks at the passersby.

A friend writes a message, subvoce – imagine, imagine,

and the bird that sheds a feather without knowing,

is the one we might chance upon, pick up and carry home

 

©Majella Cullinane Whisper of a Crow’s Wing

 

 

Otago University Press page

 

 

 

 

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Poetry Shelf audio spot: Emma Neale reads ‘Man Up’

 

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‘Man Up’ from Tender Machines, Otago University Press, 2015

 

Emma Neale received the inaugural NZSA/Janet Frame Memorial Award, the Kathleen Grattan Award for an unpublished poetry manuscript (The Truth Garden), the University of Otago Burns Fellowship and the NZSA/Beatson Fellowship. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Sarah Broom Poetry Award and the Bridport Poetry Prize, and her poetry collection, Tender Machines, was long-listed in the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Her novel, Billy Bird, was short-listed for the Acorn Prize in the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award. She is the current editor of Landfall.

 

Otago University Press page