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Poetry Shelf interviews Gregory O’Brien — The poem has to dive down into and surface from some essential state of being

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Gregory O’Brien at Tjibaou Cultural Centre, Noumea, March 2015

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Thomson


Gregory O’Brien is the  2015 Stout Memorial Fellow at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University, where he is currently working on a book about poetry, painting and the environment. His new collection of poems is Whale Years (Auckland University Press). He has published numerous books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Since 2011 he has contributed to the ongoing Kermadec art project, works from which are on show at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, New Caledonia, until July.




The interview


‘Ocean sound, what is it

you listen for?’


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

As far as I can recall, I drew more than I painted. And I always gravitated towards illustrated books—Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomin’ books stand out, and I remember The Lord of the Rings, as much for its illuminated maps as for the words. I went through a phase of reading comics—Whizzer & Chips rather than Batman. I date my interest in the interplay of words and visual images to those early encounters.

I doodled at every available opportunity and I remember being hauled out of class and punished for drawing, rather well, a crouching deer on the inside cover of my maths book. I usually captioned my drawings—so maybe those captions could be thought of as my first writings. Occasionally I filled in speech- or thought-balloons above various life-forms.


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 can trace this pretty exactly, I think. Aged 14: Bob Dylan’s ‘Writings & Drawings’. Aged 15: Dylan Thomas. Aged 16: James K. Baxter and Flann O’Brien (I liked to pretend Flann was an actual relative. I even screen-printed his book-title AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS on a singlet—an item I still have in my wee box of treasures.) Aged 17: John Cage (Silence, and A Year from Monday). By the age of 18, I was living in Dargaville, and it was as if everybody suddenly jumped on board the NZ Road Services bus or bandwagon—I was reading Kenneth Patchen, William Blake, Edith Sitwell, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, e e cummings; also Allen Curnow, Janet Frame, Sam Hunt… I had known about Eileen Duggan for some years, because she was a relative, on my mother’s side. More than anything else, however, it was discovering Robin Dudding’s journal ISLANDS that turned my world around, that brought the whole business home…. Therein I discovered Ian Wedde, Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Smither, CK Stead…


Did university life transform your poetry writing? Theoretical impulses, research discoveries, peers?

I was six years out of school by the time I finished my BA, so my university life was mixed in, very much, with everything else that was going on: with 15 months in Dargaville, a year or so in Sydney… At university, I certainly wasn’t drawn to theory except in so far as I thought it was a grand imaginative game that might, periodically, yield unpredictable and outlandish results. I enjoyed the pottiness of Ezra Pound’s literary (rather than his political) theorising… An ABC of Reading is a great book. Probably the Zen-inclined John Cage and the Trappist Thomas Merton were the two non-fiction writers I held closest to me.


Reading your poetry makes me want to write. I love the way your poems delve deep into the world, surprisingly, thoughtfully yet never let go of the music of the line. Words overlap and loop and echo. There is an infectious joy of language at work. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

I listen to a lot of music. I want the poems to have something of the music that I love. I spend a lot of my time looking at art. And I want my poems to have something of the art that I love. There are aspects of composition, tone, rhythm and character which span all these different creative modes. Those are the key factors for me when I write… At a certain point, an appropriate form makes itself known…. The poem has to dive down into and surface from some essential state of being… There is certainly a joy in doing the things that you love; so there’s joy in the making and, preceding that, in the state of being that leads to the making….


Do you see yourself as a philosophical poet? Almost Zen-like at times?

My concept of philosophy is broad and shambolic enough to accommodate what I do as a writer. I’ve never read extensively in the field of Zen (apart from the books of John Cage and the writing of my friend Richard von Sturmer). I’ve read a little, and somewhat randomly, in the field of non-conformist Catholic thought: Simone Weill, Meister Eckhart, Merton, Baxter… These peregrinations may have affected me more than I realise or am prepared to say.


Do you think your writing has changed over time?

I guess writing has to evolve – otherwise it will become predictable and a total drag. I’m as entranced as I ever was with the process, the business, the labour of it. At the same time, I remain devoted to the finished form of it: The printed book, with its covers and half-title and title-page; and the shapes of words on the page and maybe illustrations. Poetry is an art that, if it’s working, is constantly reinventing itself.

I look back at my early poems and find fault. I find myself blaming an over-voracious intake of French Surrealism; too much Kenneth Patchen one year, too much Stevie Smith the next… Too much John Berryman! And, next year, not enough John Berryman! But the ship sails on, and finds new oceans to ply.


You write in a variety of genres (poetry, non-fiction, critical writing). Do they seep into each other? Your critical writing offers the reader a freshness of vision and appraisal – not just at the level of ideas but the way you present those ideas, lucidly, almost poetically. Does one genre have a particular grip on you as a writer?

I’m only starting to realise the inter-relatedness of these different genres. A few years back I started to explore poetry’s potential to carry information, also to elaborate upon a thought in a more detailed kind of way, ie. to have an almost essayistic function. So quite a few of my longer poems (some of the odes and, particularly, ‘Memory of a fish’ in my new book) are laden with facts, figures and reasonably clearly articulated information.

Needless to say poetry infuses the writing I produce in relation to the visual arts. I find looking at art exciting; it appeals to my poetic self. I don’t really have a critical self. I hope my non-fiction writing has a cadence, a music and a subconscious (rather than a conscious) purposefulness. Pondering my recent writings on artists such as Pat Hanly, Barry Brickell and Michael Hight, I remember in each case hearing a note—a song, almost—in my ear, and I was beholden to it.


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

James K. Baxter wrote wonderfully about writing poetry. Bill Manhire’s Doubtful Sounds is an immensely useful and energising book. 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry is terrific too. I refer back to my set of the journal ISLANDS and, yes, it seems to me we New Zealanders have been writing about the process as well as the product. Janet Frame’s oeuvre might be our greatest, most enduring instance of writing about writing, thinking about writing, writing about thinking, and thinking about thinking.


Your poetry discussions with Kim Hill are terrific. The entries points into a book are paramount; the way you delight in what a poem can do. What is important for you when you review a book?

I think a book has to become part of your life to really make an impression. It’s the same with music or visual arts. It can’t be a purely intellectual thing, it has to take you over, to some degree. It has to be disarming. Accordingly I tend not to discuss books that don’t ‘do it’ for me. Life’s too short. Fortunately, I have catholic tastes. There are things I enjoy very much in Kevin Ireland, as there are things I enjoy in Michele Leggott. I guess this makes me a lucky guy.


I agree wholeheartedly. I am not interesting in reviewing books on Poetry Shelf unless they have caught me, stalled me (for good reasons!).

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?

Two years ago I went to Paris and met up with one of my all-time heroes, the French poet and art-writer Yves Bonnefoy. He turned 90 last year (Joyeux anniversaire, Yves!) During my recent travels around the Pacific (from New Caledonia to Chile), I’ve taken bilingual editions of Yves with me everywhere. I am interested in the way he has turned the creative conundrum of being an Art Writer and a Poet into something unified and compelling (channelling earlier French poet-art-writers from Baudelaire to Apollinaire, with a nod to Yves’s near-contemporaries, that wondrous group of wanna-be French-art-poets, John Ashbery and the New Yorkers). I also took the poems of Neruda and Borges with me everywhere I went.


What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

New Zealand poetry is interesting at the moment. It’s all over the place. As it should be. There are plenty of people I read voraciously. As well as the poets mentioned already: Anna Jackson, Vince O’Sullivan, you Paula, Lynn Davidson, Kate Camp, Geoff Cochrane… Last year I edited a weekly column for the Best American Poets website—that was a good chance to ‘play favourites’, as Kim Hill would say. (All those posts are archived here: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/new-zealand/) There are some great first books appearing at the moment: Leilani Tamu’s The Art of Excavation; John Dennison’s Otherwise. This bodes very well indeed.


Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved recently.

I was rereading Riemke Ensing’s Topographies (with Nigel Brown’s illustrations) the other day; I found that book very inspiring when it appeared way back in 1984. Lately I’ve also been reading Bob Orr’s crystalline Odysseus in Woolloomooloo and Peter Bland’s Collected Poems… I could go on.


Your new collection, Whale Years, satisfies on so many levels. These new poems offer a glorious tribute to the sea; to the South Pacific routes you have travelled. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?

The Kermadec voyage, and subsequent travels—most recently to New Caledonia—opened up a huge areas of subjective experience as well as of human and natural history. How do you write about that kind of space, that energy, that life-force? Wherever you travel, the air is different; the ‘night’ has a different character; the smells and textures of the vast Pacific vary from place to place. And people move differently wherever you go – they claim a different kind of space within the environment. My recent travels have been like a door opened on a new world. The last three years of my poetry-writing have been the most intense since I was in my early twenties.


That shows in this book Greg. I am looking forward to reviewing it because it touched a chord in so many ways. I love the idea that poems become little acts of homage. What difficulties did you have as traveller transforming ‘elsewhere’ into poetry? To what degree do you navigate poetry/other place as trespasser, tourist, interloper?

The artist Robin White likes to point out that there is only one ocean on earth. All our oceans are joined together—it’s the same body of water. So, if you take the sea to be your home (which, as Oceanians, believe it or not, we should do), then as long as you’re at sea you’re still, to some degree, in your home environment.

As a poet entering a new environment, I bring with me my responses, my eye, my mind and various kinds of baggage. I’m a curious person by nature so I always want to find new things—things I don’t know anything about. I like it when my preconceptions fall apart. I love being wrong about things; I enjoy the subsidence of the known world. I quote the great post-colonialist writer Wilson Harris in Whale Years: ‘If you can tilt the field then you will dislodge certain objects in the field and your own prepossessions may be dislodged as well.’

I feel that, as a poet, I am most in my element when I am sitting on the ground and learning new things. When the field of the known has been tilted. And filling my notebooks with various tracings of that new knowledge or sensation.


This is a good way to look poetry that takes hold of you; it ‘tilts’ you. I also loved the elasticity of your language – the way a single word ripples throughout a poem gleaning new connections and possibilities. Or the way words backtrack and loop. At times I felt a whiff of Bill Manhire, at others Gertrude Stein. Yet a poem by Gregory O’Brien is idiosyncratic. Are there poets you feel in debt to in terms of the use of language?

Strangely, I can’t read Gertrude Stein anymore. She is one of a very few writers I have been in love with and then the relationship has waned. Maybe, early on, she loosened up my use of language, the extent to which the rational mind is left to run things. There was a music I found in Stein, for sure. But this was something—increasingly—I found in more conventional writers like Wallace Stevens, Robert Creeley and, most recently, in Herman Melville. Moby Dick is a piece of great, symphonic, oceanic music. The novel (for want of a better term) is an incredible noise, a racket of spoken and sung sounds. Melville’s style reminds me of all the depth-finders, radars, monitors and gauges on the bridge of HMNZ Otago as we sailed north to Raoul Island in May 2011. All that information pinging and popping…


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

The long poem, ‘Memory of a fish’, is the piece that connects various experiences from the three year period in which the book was written, and brings them together—in an essayistic fashion, almost. I enjoy the ebb and flow of the triplets, and the world’s details tripping along them, like things washing ashore on Oneraki Beach… When I was writing that poem I felt I was living inside it, totally. And I haven’t quite climbed out of it yet, to be honest.


The book also demonstrates that eclectic field you plunge into as a reader with its preface quotes. What areas are you drawn into at the moment? Any astonishing finds?

The quotations at the beginning of the three sections of the book are constellations in the night sky above the poetry-ground. They mark points of reference, further co-ordinates, which have guided the writing: W. S. Graham’s ‘The stones roll out to shelter in the sea.’ The Flemish proverb: ‘Don’t let the herring swim over your head.’ Those are verbal artefacts I have carried around with me, much as you would pick up a shell or a colourful leaf. They were/are talismans. So I have stored them inside the book as well. Cherished things.


‘Constellation’ is perfect. I was thinking underground roots that nourish. Or one of any number of maps you can lay over the poems (the map of domestic intrusion, the map of childhood, the map of objects, the map of reading). But yes the process of writing has its constellation-guides as you venture into and from both dark and light.

Poetry finds its way into a number of your paintings (as it does with John Pule). There are a number of drawings included in the book that add a delicious visual layer. How do you negotiate the relationship between painting and poetry? Does one matter more? Do they feed off each other?

My notebooks contain a thick broth of visual and verbal ingredients. These materials arrive in my journal simultaneously. When writing or painting, I separate the words from the visual images and work on them more-or-less separately. When it comes to putting together a book, like Whale Years, these two disparate activities are reunited again. I’ve always loved illustrated books. (I think immediately of Bill Manhire’s The Elaboration, with pictures by Ralph Hotere; Blaise Cendrars’ long Trans-Siberian poem, illustrated by Sonia Delaunay; William Blake illustrating himself, and so on)



NOTES ON THE RAISING OF THE BONES OF PABLO NERUDA AT ISLA NEGRA by John Reynolds & Gregory O’Brien, etching, 2014

You have collaborated with a number of other artists and writers. What have been the joys and pitfalls of collaboration?

There are no pitfalls, as far as I can see. Somehow, I’ve found my way into a few collaborative circumstances and very much enjoyed the results. In the past year I’ve made etchings with my two painter-friends John Reynolds and John Pule. Like Charles Baudelaire and Frank O’Hara before me, I seem to have been lucky enough to fall in with a good crowd of painters (and also photographers—but that’s another story).



SAILING TO RAOUL by John Pule & Gregory O’Brien, etching, 2012 (John titled this work, riffing off Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’)


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?

Certainly my recent travels around the Pacific have been hugely enriching. I’m not a proper swimmer, but since I was a child I have had a great passion for floating in, or being upon salt water. (My book News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore grew out of that propensity.) The everydayness of existence is the most enriching thing—as the poems of Horace and Neruda and Wedde keep reminding me. What a great and pleasant swarm of information and sensation we find ourselves amidst, every day of our lives.


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

I keep coming back to the Collected Poems of James K. Baxter. Not because it’s the best book ever written but because of the simple fact that it occupies a huge and resonant place in my life.


Auckland University Press page

New Zealand Book  Council page

Arts Foundation page

The Kermadecs page

National Radio page (discussing poetry highlights of 2014 with Kim Hill)






Poetry Shelf interviews Jim Wilson from Phantom Billstickers for National Poetry Day

To celebrate National Poetry Day I decided to do two things. Post a poem by the fabulous poet, Tusiata Avia, and run an interview with poetry benefactor extraordinaire, Jim Wilson.

Jim Wilson started Phantom Billstickers, a street-media company, in New Zealand in 1982. His aim was to draw audiences to music events and the wider arts. Since then he has started the Phantom Billstickers Poetry Project to ‘to use posters to share the hearts and minds of the Kiwi poet with people outside of New Zealand.’ Over the past five years the posters have gone up in cities across the world (Amsterdam, Barcelona, Chicago, Clarksdale (Mississippi), Glasgow, Hong Kong, London, NYC, Paris, Singapore, Sydney, and Vienna, among many others) and back home. They are pasted on walls, poles and in cafes and have featured an electric and vital feast of New Zealand poems and poets. He is an unsung hero of NZ poetry and it is time to sing his praises. I love the idea of poems appearing like glowing beacons in all kinds of surprising places. I love the idea that you can stand in a public place and stop in the midst of urban hubbub and get hooked it into a poetry gem. So thank you Jim Wilson. We salute you on National Poetry Day!

DSC01977  jim photo

All photo credits: Jim and Kelly Wilson

In a video interview, you say you want ‘to play it by my heart.’ The picking of poems. The putting up of posters. ‘Heart’ seems like a vital word when it comes to poetry. I also like the way it hides the word ‘ear’ and the word ‘art.’ Even the generosity of sharing our poetry around resonates with heart. What made you decide to put poems on posters?

I was going through a difficult stage in my life having been through two courses of interferon (for Hepatitis C) and having lost some key people in my life. I became clinically depressed and was looking for something ‘real’. I began reading Janet Frame again and then poetry. Then I thought I should take something meaningful into the streets. Poetry was it.

Reading poetry is usually such a private, intimate thing. I love the way your poem posters bring reading out into the open. Does the public airing affect your choices of poems?

I always try and give people pause to reflect. I am very intrigued by the idea of ‘beauty’. We live in such a caustic world and I aim for beauty. Some of our poems may have an anguished twist to them but I try to stay away from venting poems.


I saw two men reading my poem on the pavement in Kitchener Street once. I hesitated and then told them I was the poet. They slapped their knees and whooped. Two Irish guys just off a ship. They thought Auckland was full of culture. Hilarious! ‘Get out of here!’ they kept saying. ‘Get out of here!’ Have you ever witnessed a stranger reading one of the poems?

I have seen lots of people stop and read the poem posters. I’ve seen groups of people gathering around lampposts in the USA reading our poem posters. Two separate places come immediately to mind, I saw a group gathered around a Michele Leggott poem poster in Northern Liberties in Philadelphia and then some people gathered around a pole in Lambertville, New Jersey. This is very gratifying.

FINAL JPEGNew Hope Poster-INTL   asburypark

Indeed. What kind of reactions are you after?

I like it when people look internally and feel something real. I imagine that’s what they do when they read poetry. I hope that’s the case at any rate.

Where is the most surprising place you have seen one of your poem posters?

You are asking me where I have been particularly happy to put a poem poster? I have been putting up posters for bands and the like since I was 16 years old. I am now 63 and I have heard the words ‘you can’t put that there’ more than anyone in New Zealand, I am sure. I was delighted to get a Hone Tuwhare poem poster right opposite the main gates of Parchman Farm (The Mississippi Federal Penitentiary) in Mississippi. You aren’t allowed to stop on that road for a mile or so either side of the main gates, but I did and the screws came running. The poem poster went up! Also I did a lot of Janet Frame poem posters in Baltimore and at Princeton University. I felt every single one I put up.

There are a thousand ways to write a poem (no rules, no recipes which is what is so appealing), yet poetry stalls each of us in different ways. What stops you in your tracks when you read a poem? Any examples?

I wouldn’t know what iambic pentameter is from a hole in the ground and I don’t know how poetry works, but I ‘feel’ it. In Tusiata Avia’s poems I feel every word (check out today’s Friday Poem I have posted by her!). I also feel everything Gerald Stern writes and Ben Brown too.



Yes! ironically words take you beyond words. On occasion you have launched a poster-poem series (for example in Christchurch, Auckland and New York). This brings the ‘ear’ of heart into play more. Hearing a poem read aloud means you get to play it in the poet’s voice from then on if you like. Have any poems had a new affect on you when you heard them performed?

Some of the best ‘readers’ I have seen are not the best poets. Reading is a ‘performance art’. Ben Brown combines both worlds I think. He sets the walls on fire.

Tusiata is like this. And Bill Manhire. When he reads a poem like ‘Hotel Emergencies’ time stops. Did you read poetry as a child (lay down rhymes and rhythms that stuck with you) or did you come to it later in life?

I probably read a lot of poetry when I was a kid but my dad read William Faulkner and he resonated in our house. Like I say, I don’t know iambic pentameter from a hole in the ground but I do think Bob Dylan liberated us all to be poets. I find more in poetry each and every day. I find my history in James K. Baxter.

Nice. I like  that idea. Poetry has many functions. What American poets are in your memory banks that you love?

I love Mathew Dickman who has just signed with our project and a San Francisco poet called August Kleinzahler who is now also involved. I remember seeing the emails from Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself when he became involved and that was profoundly moving. I also spent a bit of time with Gerald Stern and he has read to me lots of times. That experience is gold in the bank. Also to have involved people like Robert Creeley (we had the ‘sign off’ from Penelope Creeley), Jim Harrison, C.K. Williams, Robert Pinsky and W.S. Merwin… All this has lead me to think we are doing something with real purpose.

Ben Brown Mt Rushmore 

What New Zealand poets are in your memory banks that you love?

Tusiata Avia, Hinemoana Baker, James K. Baxter, Ben Brown, Bill Direen, David Eggleton, Sam Hunt, Frankie McMillan, Dave Merritt, Elizabeth Smither, Marty Smith, Hone Tuwhare… There are just so many of them…We have produced poems by just over 100 different Kiwi poets (from memory). This country has some of the very best poets in the world and I don’t know exactly how you measure their work… But if you feel something on the reading then that is good enough for me. As I keep on saying, I scarcely know anything about ‘technique’ and this is probably my strong suit.

If you were to describe poetry written in New Zealand to an American poetry fan, what sorts of things might you say?

That it is of the earth. That it is on the ground. That it all comes from being in a natural country and stranded in paradise.

Are you drawn to write poems? Or anything else?

I do a lot of writing and feel daunted almost every time I see a fresh poem poster come to us.

Poetry has many functions: to tell miniature stories, to make music, to make connections, to move people, to challenge people, to show the world in new lights, to share ideas, to speak out in a political way to surprise people, to soothe people, to startle people, to make people laugh. For a start! What functions matter to you?

That it all takes your body before it takes your mind.

If you had a completely free day today (NZ Poetry Day), and you could sit and read poetry all day long, what would you read?

Ben Brown, Tusiata Avia… Mixed with P. Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, E.E. Cummings… Not to be traitorous but even if they are not Kiwis they are still pretty good.

If you were trapped somewhere (in a lift, in a waiting room, in an airport,) what poetry book would you read?

Always had to pick one. James K. Baxter’s Oxford Press collection. That’ll stop you being annoyed and ‘bring you back to yourself’.


Thanks Jim Wilson!


The Story of the Poster Poem on YouTube

The Poetry Project

Poetry Shelf Interviews Sam Sampson–I try to forget that I’m writing a poem and hopefully an intuitive intelligence takes over


Sam Sampson June 2014

Photo Credit: Roland Vink

Auckland University Press recently published Sam Sampson’s second poetry collection, Halcyon Ghosts. To celebrate this, Sam agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf. I will post a review shortly.


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

I’m not sure my childhood shaped me as a poet. I had a pretty ordinary white middle-class NZ upbringing, living out in the wops (as the Waitakeres were called in those days). But now, looking back at the books, plus audio and visual stimulus, maybe there is a correlation to what I’m up to now.

Early on I was introduced to nursery rhymes from both grandmothers, and from books that survive, a combination of traditional fairy tales and fables. I also remember being an avid listener of the radio (1ZB stories) on a Sunday morning.

My paternal grandmother (Nana) lived in Mt Albert and had retained all of my father’s exercise books, school prizes, and books, and these were stored in my father’s childhood bedroom. This is were I started my extramural reading, primarily the standard Anglo-fare of children of my father’s generation: Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens (with pictures by Arthur Rackham), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

As much as these stories peppered my imagination there was the environment I grew up in at the bottom of South Titirangi Rd in West Auckland. There were the kauri, the tea-tree, the wood pigeons, tui…the Manukau (Jenkins Bay) on one side, and Little Muddy Creek on the other. As a child I had a magical upbringing. I swam in Little Muddy Creek, kayaked over to the dairy at Laingholm to buy ice cream, climbed trees, went fishing with uncles and friends…swam, surfed at Karekare, Piha, Anawhata, Whites, Whatipu, Bethells….


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 didn’t start out writing poems but song lyrics, which I suppose were early poems of a sort. A number of the songwriters I admired had either published prose, or poems, so I started to search out poets and thinkers they referenced.

In my late twenties I started sending poems out to poets and magazines. I flatted in a house where the owners had gone overseas and left an extensive library at our disposal. I remember reading Wallace Stevens (being transfixed by ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’), William Carlos Williams, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Walt Whitman, James K. Baxter, Stephen Spender, Michael Ondaatje, and The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (edited by Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen). It was here I discovered the poems of Allen Curnow and started to seek out his work, partly I think because of the discursive line he wrote, but also because of his distinctive and recognisable images of Karekare on Auckland’s West Coast, which had been familiar to me right through childhood. Later, after discovering my great-uncles were early members of the Karekare Surf Patrol, and my grandfather (a mechanic) repaired the surf club trucks, this gave a gravitas of sorts to the environs I grew up in and anchored the familial with Curnow’s type of philosophical topography.

In 1999 I sent an early batch of poems to Allen Curnow and received back a reply, where he wrote, amongst other things, that I’d sent him quite a remarkable variety of ‘contruptions’ (Auden’s word). Now, for me I was overwhelmed that Allen Curnow had taken the time to read my work and respond, but I couldn’t work out this mysterious word of Auden’s: ‘contruptions’ – was it like an interruption contrariwise, a continuing interruption, or disruption – or some other fantastical Auden word? At the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in May of 2001 I went to hear Allen Curnow read, and afterwards, queued to get my copy of Early Days Yet signed. When I reached the signing table I introduced myself, and as he was a little hard of hearing, repeated loudly and a number of times that he’d said my poetry was a series of contruptions (Auden’s word). He looked at me quizzically, and said, you mean ‘contraptions’…. it was then I realised his spidery, looping handwriting had turned the ‘a’ to a ‘u’. For two years I’d imbedded the notion of my poetry as being christened by Allen Curnow as a series of contruptions. Today it seems appropriate; maybe my work is a series of ‘contruptions’, somewhere in between a contraption, a disruption, an inter-ruption.


That is wonderful! Like a mishearing. Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing?

Yes, it was an immersive shock to the system. Not so much in the area of poetry writing but more the eclectic mix and match of subject matter. At the time I did my BA, and MA (I combined both papers in Philosophy and Ethnomusicology) I was lucky enough to have full year papers and this left enough time to explore a subject, to read books associated with the syllabus. This journey of discovery was the reason I found my way to literature, and especially to philosophers and poets.

While studying, I took a part-time job as a roadie and stage assistant for the local orchestra (The Auckland Philharmonia). For eight years I had access to a wonderful roster of orchestral rehearsals and performances. I couldn’t tell you exactly how it influenced my work, but talking and listening to musicians, conductors, and composers gave me a sense of how music could lift the notes off the page. I felt that as poetry is built around shifts of tempo and modulations of pitch, every gesture was connected to meaning and is an intuitive way of sound sculpting. This is not to say I felt poetry (my poetry especially) should ever purely be of the sound poetry tradition. I felt meaning inherently tied at the initial compositional stage, but this structure could be extended, until in some cases only a shimmer of the original meaning was left behind.


You have an MA in Philosophy and I do see philosophical undercurrents in your poetry — you are unafraid of embedded ideas. How do you view the relationship between philosophy and poetry in your own writing?

I started writing poetry in the last couple of years at university. I was more interested in Philosophy than taking papers in the English department (my degree has no papers from that department) although saying this, I was interested in philosophers who also wrote poetry and prose – especially the Continental Philosophy tradition, which articulated different formulations of the phenomenal and noumenal world…of empirical and non-empirical knowledge…


I love the way your poems exude joyfulness. In the power of words to delight and astound. To take us to unexpected places, poetry as an archaeological dig. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

I’ve always been interested in writing a poetry that evokes the joy of being found. But maybe joy could be extended to light…the refracted light in language that is unearthed. Sound is important for me in a poem, as is meaning and the shape of the text. I think as children we delight in this full range of possibilities and somewhere along the educational spectrum are conditioned toward a certain code of intelligence. I try to forget that I’m writing a poem and hopefully an intuitive intelligence takes over, and to use that wonderful John Ashbery analogy, a bucket is lowered down into a kind of underground stream flowing through the mind and is brought back to the surface. I try to let the language propel itself, not to worry initially about specific meaning, and when re-writing, to delight in unexpected slippage. As James Joyce said, when asked: ‘Aren’t there enough words for you in English?’ he replied: ‘Yes, there are enough, but they aren’t the right ones.’


Do you think your writing has changed since your debut collection?

Yes, definitely the writing has changed but carries over frames and referents from the last collection…my flow is going with time…as Leigh Davis wrote. I see myself as writing one book of poetry, with of course variations within the body of work.

Looking at this book I see a synchronicity, what others have called an analytic lyricism. I can join more dots when looking at the book as a whole, but saying that, I’m not sure how to describe the poems. It seems reasonable primary facts have been lost, other facticities I have created to replace forgotton fact, certain memories I have erased, or chosen to omit. When trying to chart poems, frames of reference will only take me so far, and images make me believe there was an event connected to each and every poem. I hope in this body of language I’ve let the subjects find themselves and inadvertently resurrected the dead. The dead here, I take to mean, not just those that have passed away during the writing of this book, but also the language that has been unearthed, the unearthed vestiges.

In coaxing this book into existence my maternal grandmother died, my daughter was born, and at the end of January, I took my father home to die. This book means something, but at the moment I’m too close to it, and I’m just not sure what, or even if it will ever be accessible to me.

People have told me my poetry will alter, not by any act of will, but because of a process, a process whereby living inevitably reconfigures one’s relationship to the world and to one’s sense of mortality and life. This book is a type of reel, a reel of life… in my beginning is my end… and the halcyon ghosts that manifest in this circuitry of life, live beyond their deaths – where names displaced by light / are dark but not lost….

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

I’m not sure, as I haven’t seen that particular review. I know Michael and he is a very good poet and critic. I know from my perspective everything I set up to write as a poem, is a poem. I’m thinking here in the area of the conceptual arts, where Duchamp’s Fountain (porcelain urinal) is in fact an artwork when placed in the context of the gallery. I admire the work Kenny Goldsmith is doing with his ‘Uncreative Writing’ model, although I find it hard to produce pure conceptual work along those lines (I wrote a little more about this if anyone is interested: A Response). So to answer your question, I think it depends on the framework you set-up for ‘poetry’, and to my mind anything is possible.

Alternatively, I was reminded of what Allen Curnow said in an interview in the collection, Look Back Harder (1987):

…when one thinks or hopes one had brought off a poem of one’s own uncontaminated, it looks, at first, so utterly unlike anything one has ever read that one is worried about it – this can’t be poetry at all, it’s a curious sort of uncouth gangling kind of thing, and yet this is how it turned out. What has usually happened is that poem is definitely one’s own. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, only it’s one’s own.


At times dislocating in the sway between deeply familiar and disconcertinly not so. You have turned to the shape poem in your new collection. When I first opened your book, it felt like I was entering a field of beauty — in the formation of the poems on the page and the phrases snared in the corner of my eye. What fascinated you about shape poems?

As I see and hear the world through poetry, I let it take shape – so to me all poems are shape poems. The shapeliest in the book is the title poem ‘Halcyon Ghosts’, which is in counterpoint to photographer Harvey Benge’s Birds. Harvey’s bird series seemed to open up the possibilities of a type of presentational immediacy, and more generally, a formation, or frame for language. In this instance the words articulate, and are mimetic in loosely following the flight path of migrating birds (the bird’s the word) but in my work I hoped to disrupt the reader by starting the poem on the recto (right) page, then moving the poem to a more traditional left-right reading pattern. The words loosely follow nature (birds), until the last frame, where my stanza becomes nature: the words and birds are both committed and identically. (I was reminded here of the wonderful Ed Harris Pollock movie, when Jackson Pollock asked by his partner Lee Krasner on why he didn’t paint, or imitate nature, his response: ‘I am nature’.)


I love the phrase on the back of your book, ‘thirteen shapes of knowing.’ Can you expand upon this?

Thirteen, consciously, and unconsciously, became an important touchstone throughout the book. There are thirteen poems in the book, the cover still La lampada della nonna (Grandmother’s Lamp) was produced in 1913, there are references to thirteen lunar cycles, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, the sun travelling thirteen degrees across the sky, McCahon’s number poems, Rothko’s number titled poems, plus many of the stanzas add up to thirteen; for example: ‘The Tombstone Epitaph’ is written in XIII stanzas…thirteen ways, or cinematic vignettes of looking at the famous gunfight at O.K. Corral, and the subsequent pursuit of the Earp gang.

Throughout Halcyon Ghosts, I also looked to number thirteen as a graphical representation, which I hoped may move the reader to see the poem as more than just a semantic meandering, and as much, a symbolic, or figurative representation of this numerical value.

Just to continue with the numerological, or repetitive arrangement of the book; this book is dedicated to my maternal grandmother, and my daughter. My daughter Lucia, was born on Friday 13th, at 1:13 in the morning, in Room 13 at Auckland Hospital; my grandmother was born in London, on March 13th, 1920, and died in Auckland, on December 13th, 2009. The idea of repetition, of a loosely constructed numerical frame is part of the circuitry that makes up this book. I hoped the poems were both spontaneous and exacting – a reel of real…a dancing in chains.

Coincidentally, Halcyon Ghosts was launched on Friday 13 June and my last book Everything Talks, was also launched on Friday 13 June, six years earlier.


What NZ and international poets have mattered to you over the past year?

Much of my reading is grazing online journals and blogs, reading what’s there in front of me. The books on a small shelf next to my desk are books I revisit, or recent purchases…(on the shelf at this moment): Barbara Guest; Paul Muldoon; Wallace Stevens; John Ashbery; Gustaf Sobin; Geoffrey Hill; Peter Cole; John Cage; C.K.Stead; Michael Palmer; Murray Edmond; Anne Kennedy; Ian Wedde; T.S.Eliot; John Keats; Alice Miller; Samuel Beckett; Eliot Weinberger; Keith Waldrop; Leigh Davis; Zach Savich; Elisa Gabbert.


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?

At the moment it’s a busy bustling lifestyle, looking after my nearly four-year-old girl (who now insists the next book must contain at least one ‘dinosaur’ poem!). The beginning of this year was particularly demanding, working towards this publication and caring for my father who died in January.

In the summer months I try to spend as much time at the West Coast beaches and Waitakere Ranges. I love swimming in the ocean, and through November–April, I swim with a couple of friends at Cornwallis Beach at the Manukau Harbour entrance. There’s something invigorating about bobbing about in the ocean five hundred or so metres offshore and looking back. I’m also a keen sea kayaker and in March was lucky enough to spend four days kayaking in the Coromandel, in and around Cathedral Cove, and then in late April, four nights kayaking the magical Tutukaka coastline…Rocky Bay…Matapouri Bay…Whale Bay….


Yes, do try a dinosaur poem for her! Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

I was trapped in a hospital waiting room waiting for my mother who had an appointment. I think I was there for about five hours and luckily had just received in the mail the second volume of Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems 1975–2005 that starts with the poem, ‘Wellington, New Zealand’. It was a great read, but I prefer his first Collected (1945–1975) more for the radical and influential shifts in register.

But if trapped for hours anywhere, I would have to say the magnificent Collected Poems of Barbara Guest. In the introductory essay by Peter Gizzi, he quotes Barbara Guest:

The most important act of a poem is to reach further than the page so that we are aware of another aspect of art…. what we are setting out to do is delimit the work of art so that it appears to have no beginning and no end, so that it overruns the boundaries of the poem on the page.


Thanks for such generosity of response Sam.

Auckland University Press page

Sam’s website

Poetry Shelf interviews the finalists for the Sarah Broom Poetry Award: Today CK Stead


Photo credit: Marti Friedlander

To celebrate the inaugural Sarah Boom Poetry Award, Poetry Shelf has interviewed each of the finalists. First up is CK Stead.

Karl has published over forty volumes of poetry, fiction, memoir and criticism. Along with New Zealand’s highest honour (the Order of New Zealand), he has received the 2009 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, a 2009 Montana Book Award for his Collected Poems and the esteemed Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine in 2010, amongst numerous other awards. Karl’s latest collection is The Yellow Buoy (published by Auckland University Press in New Zealand and Ark in the United Kingdom).

My reaction to his poems: ‘Karl’s poems embrace a vision that welcomes both an intellectual life and an everyday life along with a joyful attentiveness to sound. There is the characteristic wit, reflection and irony, but there is also tenderness, empathy and acute insight. Karl’s poems radiate such a contoured experience for the reader through their layering of ideas, self-confession, musical agility and location within a history of reading and thought. The subject matter shifts from the intimacy of a love poem to his wife, Kay, to a cheeky eulogy to Derrida (‘the enemy of plain sense’) to a hilarious case of mistaken identity. These poems have an unwavering strength to pull you back again and again to fall upon new discoveries.’


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?

Who said ‘the child is father to the man’? Wordsworth, probably, who has a lot to say about the shaping of the sensibility in childhood. Poetry itself didn’t figure much at all in my childhood; but I think the poetic sensibility was shaped in relation to the natural world – the bush, the beaches, the out-of-doors, the cousins’ farm at Kaiwaka where a lot of holidays were spent: a very NZ childhood.

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)?


At the age of 13 or 14 my sister was given the poems of Rupert Brooke which I borrowed from her and never returned (and still have). He was the first poet I read seriously, and began at once to write poems more or less in imitation I suppose. That started me.

Your poems are delightfully complex packages that offer countless rewards for the reader—musicality, wit, acute intelligence, lucidity, warmth, intimacy, playfulness, an enviable history of reading, irony, sensual detail, humour, lyricism. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

It has to be a meeting of words and feeling, in which the words are at the very least equal in importance, and the feeling can be of any kind, not just one kind. I like wit, think laughter can be tonic, but of course it doesn’t fit all occasions.

There were a number of significant poets in NZ from the 1940s onwards and you have interacted with many of them (Curnow, Mason, Glover, Baxter and so on). Were there any in particular whose poetry struck a profound chord with you?

Curnow was always the most important for me. But when I was young Fairburn’s lyricism seemed very attractive; Glover at his rare best (the Sing’s Harry poems); Mason likewise (‘Be Swift O sun’); Baxter – especially in his later poems: they have all been important to me.

Do you think your writing has changed over time? I see an increased tenderness, a contemplative backward gaze, moments where you poke fun at and/or revisit the younger ‘Karls,’ a moving and poetic engagement with age, writerly ghosts and death. Yet still there is that love and that keen intelligence that penetrates every line you write.

You are very kind! I certainly feel ‘older and wiser’ in the sense that things don’t matter so much, one accepts the fact of human folly and one’s own share in it. Indignation doesn’t stop, but there is a kind of weary acceptance, and laughter. I still feel embarrassment – especially when looking back – but I recognize that as not only a safeguard against social mistakes, but also as another manifestation of ego, as if one feels one should be exempt from folly.

There have been shifting attitudes to the ‘New Zealand’ label since Curnow started calling for a national identity (he was laying the foundation stones that we then had the privilege to use as we might). Does it make a difference that you are writing in New Zealand? Does a sense of home matter to you?

When I was young I was a literary nationalist. Now I regard nationalism as a form of tribalism and the result of genetic programming no longer suitable or safe in the modern world. So I have changed a lot. But I still recognize regional elements as important, even essential, in the poetic process. I think Curnow himself became more a regional poet and less a nationalist one; but the arguments that had swirled around all that had had the effect of committing him to positions which he didn’t want to resile from, so he remained the committed nationalist, perhaps after the need had passed.

What irks you in poetry? What delights you?

I suppose any kind of excess, of language or of feeling; and solemnity – especially the sense that poetry is taking itself too seriously and asking for special respect.

There are many kinds of delight in poetry, but almost all of them involve economy. If an idea or an experience or a scene or a personality or whatever can be conveyed as well in 10 words as in 20, those 10 words will be full of an energy which the more relaxed and expansive version lacks. They will be radio-active.

Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Singling out living poets might be invidious, but here are three by poets now dead: You will know when you get there (Curnow); Jerusalem Sonnets (Baxter); Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby (David Mitchel).

What international writers are you drawn to? Now and over time? A variety of writers make an entry in your most recent book, The Yellow Buoy.

I grew up at a time when T.S. Eliot was the dominant figure both as poet and critic, so my mind was partly shaped by his, though never in the sense of being a slavish follower – and in fact my temperamental differences, and intellectual distance from Eliot, have always been clear. Yeats was always important. Pound I came to an understanding with a little later. Wallace Stevens was an influence. Philip Larkin, a little closer in age, was admired, though his limitations were always recognized. But these are all 20th century poets. I have always read widely among the poets from Shakespeare and Donne through to the present. Among living poets I am now pondering Anne Carson (Canadian) with interest, admiration and sometimes impatience. I keep up a lively correspondence with Mike Doyle in Canada – a New Zealand poet for a period of 10 or 15 years – and we exchange and comment on one another’s poems. Similarly with Alan Roddick in the South Island. I read recently in London and Oxford with Fleur Adcock and Kevin Ireland and felt with them the kinship of more or less exact contemporaries.

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?

In no particular order, interaction with family (Kay, our 3 children and 7 grandchildren – and a large extension beyond); friends and former colleagues; movies, swimming (almost daily through 7 or 8 months of the year), music (including opera where possible), travel abroad (France and Italy especially, London always); the bush at Karekare, politics… The on-going party that life is, and that I’ll be sorry to leave.

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

There are a few rules, none unbreakable. If you choose to write a sonnet you choose a rule and then may observe it strictly or loosely or in such a way as to make the nominated choice only ironic. Poems do not succeed or fail by observing rules.

Eleanor Catton recently suggested there is no reviewing culture in New Zealand in The Guardian. Do you agree?

No, I don’t think I do agree – but it’s not like the UK where if one paper gives you a tanning for sure the next will tell you you’ve written a work of genius. The papers that review here are too few and consequently each counts for too much. And there is not a strong sense of literary critical practice here; a kind of authoritative back-up (behind the reviews) of informed opinion such as the universities used to provide. Now (but this is probably typical of everywhere) we have breathless academic devotees of Mansfield or Frame or Hyde or Curnow (safe options), and… Creative Writing! Neither of these amounts to what I would think of as distinguished literary criticism.

In your entry letter you stated, ‘Poetry has been my life, and all the other literary endeavours, criticism, scholarship, fiction, circle around and out from it.’ Poetry is like your gold nugget. I love this notion, particularly as your endeavours in these other areas have been so strong. Take your wonderful novel, My Name Was Judas for example. What were the satisfactions in writing this daring and utterly engrossing work?

I do feel that any success I’ve had as a critic has been from understanding the creative process at its fundamental level, in having written poetry. Fiction has a range of possibility, narrative and sociological, beyond what poetry permits – so my novels have been (as A.S. Byatt says they are) ‘a poet’s fictions’. My Name was Judas was a novel that took me by surprise and was really an attempt to retell a story we all know, the Jesus story, in a way that made it intelligible and believable to a modern persona such as myself, apprised of scientific facts, which have encroached so far on religious faith that there is, in truth, no room left to share. But I wanted my Judas (who incidentally does not betray Jesus but does not believe he is divine and tries to save him from himself) to have an extra dimension beyond ‘fact and reason’ and he has that in being a poet – so I was able to mix whatever skills I have in fiction and poetry in a single book.

Is there a particularly poetry book of yours that matters more than the rest?

Usually the most recent is the one I like best. But looking back I think Geographies is one that comes at a good time in my life when I was beginning to shake off the pressures of being a University Professor, and range about the world both physically and intellectually – and I think that shows in the poems.

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

At 81 I come to these things rather late, and sceptically. White noise mainly.

Finally if you were to be trapped (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day, waiting for a decision) for hours what poetry book would you read? Actually I think the context would affect which book to a large degree!

I might just resort to the poetry in my head – there’s a lot – I’ve always had that kind of memory, so there’s a bit of everything from Shakespeare and Donne, through Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, on up to Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Alice Miller in interview—Poetry as a shift between the unconscious brain and the conscious


Alice Miller has written poetry, plays, essays and fiction. She has worked as an historian for the Waitangi Tribunal, studied music, and graduated with an MFA from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an MA with Distinction from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. She has gained numerous awards—from The Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize to a prize for the Landfall essay competition and the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Premier Award for Fiction.

Alice has been based in Vienna where she is the Associate Editor of The Vienna Review, but has spent the first part of 2014 at Auckland’s Michael King Writers’ Centre as its Summer Writer in Residence.

To celebrate the arrival of her stunning debut collection, The Limits, Alice kindly agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf. The book was published by Auckland University Press in early March and will also be published by Shearman Press (UK)  this year. I will shortly review this book (Bill Manhire gives it a terrific endorsement on the back: ‘At the same time, her book takes us far beyond its title, letting us glimpse again and again – in finite space – what it limitless.’).


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? Did you write as a child? As a kid I wrote long, interminable stories. I think I filled an entire exercise book with a single story about a chestnut pony trying to get home. One chapter featured a hundred and three exclamation marks, all in succession. I still feel very sorry for my teacher.


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)? Yes! When I first read Eliot – that disembodied voice, those great leaps, and the result being such an astounding whole – it may well’ve made me a poet. A large part of love is timing, and The Waste Land was my first real glimpse of what poetry could do.  It was so familiar and so foreign, like all the world was poured into this one voice.


Perhaps a large part of writing is timing! I love the way your poems abound in connections—narrative, musical, cerebral, material, enigmatic. What are key things for you when you write a poem? Thank you! I think of writing as basically a shift between the unconscious brain and the conscious. At first, the poem happens entirely in the unconscious; if you let the conscious brain in too early, it’ll try to explain the poem and kill it. But after some time away from the poem, the conscious brain has its part in editing, and re-editing, and re-editing –

After that, what I look for is a sense that a poem is working, that the machine o’ words has a functioning engine.  I know a poem is worth keeping if, when I return to it after revision over weeks or months, it’s still a mystery to me; it’s still alive on the page.


You were once a historian. Is a sense of history an important factor as you write? A way of exploring how and where you belong? Yes, absolutely. The Limits is haunted by a particular image, that of a city which carries all its pasts at once. I stole this idea from Freud. If we translate it to Wellington, say, we have the untouched bush, we have the first pa sites on the headland, and we have every building that’s been built ever since, as well as those buildings’ ruins – and all of it is able to exist simultaneously. Freud used this image as a metaphor for the mind, which holds all its memories at once.  We’re around on this planet for such a brief time, but poetry can, in a sense, cluster and compress space and time.


Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved. Because I’ve been overseas I’m behind on my local poetry – I’m about to catch up! – but I’ve heard great things about many recent collections.  And I loved Sam Sampson’s first book, and Lynn Jenner’s, and Bill Manhire’s Selected.


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. Some poets of the last year (with the term ‘poet’ used rather loosely) would be Elizabeth Bishop for her precision and her use of abstraction, her embrace of specific geography alongside the unmappable; Chekhov for holding his sad and funny mirror to the world; Flaubert for his exquisite sentences; and Shakespeare and Yeats for, well, everything else.


The constant mantra to be a better writer is to write, write, write and read read read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life? I do like to play football, or rather, at my level, to run about a football field accidentally kicking people’s ankles.


Your new collection is entitled The Limits. Is it important for you to break boundaries, respect boundaries or a bit of both? Or to see poetry as a way of navigating the limitless possibilities of the world, both real and imagined? Great question. For me, the limits also suggest limitlessness; would we still recognise beauty if we lived forever? Or was Stevens right when he wrote death is the mother of beauty? That there are limits means there’s something to reach beyond. I’ve always been terrified by time and death, and I see poetry – and art in general – as the only way to deal with time, to momentarily lose that terror.

You know those moments when you see a puddle on the pavement and it seems astonishing?  Are these the greatest moments of being alive?  We can’t live in a constant state of awe, so we spend a lot of time stretching to attain it.  Perhaps when I talk about a poem working, it’s actually reaching for awe.


I love that notion of writing as stretching—the way poetry has its feet in puddles (the ordinary) and its eyes on the distance (the awe-dinary?). 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? Today I’m feeling a little anxious, so I’m going to say Whitman: ‘All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.’

Thank you Alice!


Alice Miller website

Auckland University Press page

Shearsman UK page

On Antarctica on New Zealand Book Council page

Alice Miller’s poetry duets — The Red Room page


Owen Marshall in interview: ‘Poetry in the service of something sincerely felt’

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Award-winning author and editor of 25 books, Owen Marshall is both a poet and fiction writer. He is considered one of the most significant writers of short stories in New Zealand. He received the 2013 Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, and was awarded an Honourary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Canterbury where he is an adjunct professor. Owen’s poetry reflects a deft and economical eye that catches luminous detail. His poems are steered by love as much as keen intelligence as they travel from everyday experience to an eclectic reading history to contemplative moments.

To mark the arrival of his third poetry collection, The White Clock (Otago University Press, 2014), Owen kindly agreed to be interviewed by NZ Poetry Shelf. I will review this new collection shortly.

1- Have reading and writing always been important to you?

My father was a lover of books, and he read to us as children, mainly from such authors as Kipling, Dickens, Galsworthy,  Conan Doyle and the lake poets.  He was also a devoted walker and loved the outdoors.  I was open to both enthusiasms.  Although a  keen reader I made few attempts to write until I had finished university study.

2- What poets have influenced you?

I have  enjoyed reading poetry since my teens, but began writing it comparatively recently and without systematic study.  Early haphazard reading included the usual suspects – Housman, Auden, Eliot, Dickinson,  Bishop, Yeats, Frost, Hughes and Dylan Thomas.  I  was drawn to the lyrical qualities of Laurie Lee, which are evident in his prose as well as his poetry.  I much admired Jane Austen’s epigrammatic precision which may be so effectively used in poetry.  When in my twenties I was stunned by Henry Reed’s wonderful poem, ‘The Naming of Parts,’ and it remains a favourite.  More recent influences are people like Paul Muldoon and Gary Soto.  James K Baxter is the leading New Zealand poet for me, despite the unevenness of his work. Among many others  I admire are Vincent O’Sullivan, Brian Turner, Bill Manhire, C.K. Stead, Michael Harlow, Fiona Kidman, Lauris Edmond, Frankie McMillan, and Fiona Farrell.  There are many more.

3 – In my Herald review of your collection, Sleepwalking in Antarctica, I suggested your poems were `an exquisite marriage of musicality, observation, elegance and economy.’  What are the key things for you when you write a poem?

I hope for emotional intensity.  Word play may be attractive, maybe even dazzling, but eventually it palls for me if not in the service of something sincerely felt.  When I read I want to find out more about how others find the business of living to be.   Wordsworth’s definition of poetry has become a cliché, but `emotion recollected in tranquility’ still takes some beating.  Humour and satire are attractive in poetry, and of course cadence, insight and originality.

4 – Has your writing changed over time?

I hope that my writing has become more assured, but the work always twists in the hand and never matches the artistic intention.  In the end you write as you can rather than as you wish.  No doubt an evolution is discernible in my fiction, but all the poetry I have published is comparatively recent.  I do feel however that it continues to free up, and increasingly I feel comfortable with using the vernacular.

5 – You write in both forms.  Are you attached to one more than the other, or are both necessary to you?

In reading I make little distinction.  In my writing the inclination is perhaps to the short story, which itself tends towards the associative effects of poetry because of the need for economy.   My poetry tends to be more personal than the prose, directly related to my own experience and feelings.  I can’t will poetry in the way I can prose.  The poems come in their own time, sometimes thick and fast, sometimes not at all.  I was fortunate to have the Henderson Arts Trust residency in Alexandra last year and many of the poems in The White Clock were written while I was there, and out of the stimulus of a new setting.

6 – What irks you, and delights you, in poetry?

I dislike cloying sentimentality and obfuscation parading as profundity.  I admire cadence, exactitude, sincerity and striking imagery.

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

I’m not involved with it.  It seems to me peripheral to the central concerns of reading and writing, and life generally.

8 – What activities enrich your writing life?

Nothing is more important than family.  Friends and outdoor interests help prevent too much studious self absorption.  I used to play a lot of sport, but the joints protest now.  Writing has taken me to many places – France, Italy, China, Antarctica among them.   My degree is in history and I find travel in Europe especially interesting. I always keep a journal to record impressions  and experiences.  Also as an adjunct professor at Canterbury University I have enjoyed keeping up with younger people interested in literature, being challenged in my views, reading and practice.

9 – Your writing is enlivened with acute details of place.  Is a sense of home an important factor as you write?

Our physical environment influences us in tangible and intangible ways, and we in turn mold it.  Cityscapes and landscapes are far more than just backdrops.  The latter tend to dominate in my work because most of my life has been spent in provincial centres.  I’m rather drawn to natural places that are not overwhelmed by people.

Thank you Owen Marshall.


Otago University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

Owen Marshall web page

Christchurch City Library interview

Random House author page

Selina Tusitala Marsh talks to Poetry Shelf (Part 1): It is my voice as woman, kickboxer, and Pacifican


Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent. The first Pacific Islander to graduate from the University of Auckland with a PhD in English, she now lectures in the Department. Her debut collection, Fast Talkin’ PI (Auckland University Press, 2009), won the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the NZ Post Book Awards. Selina represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Poetry Parnassus event. Her second collection, Dark Sparring (Auckland University Press, 2013), is to be launched in Auckland tonight. Selina is a strong role model for emerging poets and writers in our Pacific communities, through the poetry she pens, the courses she teaches, the ideas she circulates, the writers she mentors and the schools she visits.

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Selina’s first book has two lives — on the page and in performance. For some poets, one is a dilute form of the other, but with Selina the strength in one is the strength in the other. Her voice is, as her poetry underlines, a voice in a long line of women writing, and in particular Pacific-Island women writing. She acknowledges her literary forbears. Her voice is sweetened with musical honey, but it is also unafraid to bite as she questions her place in the world. The long poem, ‘Fast Talkin’ PI,’ has captured the ears and hearts of festival goers around the world as she pulls us into the thick of what it means to be human. This list of what a woman can be and do (in debt to Anne Waldman) is a song in the ear, an infectious beat and rhyme momentum and an act of liberation from straightened stereotypes —  and it gets under your skin. Selina has the courage to speak out, and her ideas are not veiled beneath hint and allusion, but as she speaks, you get the textured delights of poetry. Like several New Zealand women, Selina is showing that Performance Poetry (or Spoken Word Poetry) is a vital part of our poetry culture. It exists in a spectrum of subtly, passion, politics, heartbreak, musical chords, love, connections, word play, autobiography, body dance, tradition and experimentation.

In celebration of her new book, Selina kindly agreed to be interviewed by Poetry Shelf. I will post a review of Dark Sparring next week. The Photo Credit is Emma Hughes Photography. Thanks to Auckland University Press, I have giveaway copy of Selina’s new book for someone who likes or comments on this post or the review I will post next week.

Selina KBox Image

The Interview:

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’ve never mentioned this before but when I was young my dad, who worked in a stainless steel factory, made us kids a stainless steel slide. My favourite past time was to lie, tummy down, on the slide and peer into the warped face staring back.  I’d also stare at the reflected warped sky, birds, trees, other people, but mostly this face that was mine and not mine.  Then I’d sing and chant to this other self. I think, without getting too psychoanalytical,  that those endless hours went some way to being conscious of me as other, and of my words as potentially independent of myself. Something that exists beyond my body and is emitted through another body that looks somewhat like me but isn’t me.  That duality continues through life.  I’m an incredibly social person and yet, need time alone, and enjoy deep one-to-one friendships.  I also used to while away entire Saturdays reading books in bed, pretending the backyard fence was a horse (and riding it), and got really good at Galaga at the corner takeaways.

Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing? Theoretical impulses, research discoveries, peers?

Undoubtedly yes.  Because it gave me books, books from all over the globe and introduced me to the world of post colonial theory where marginalised voices were recognised and given space to flourish. It gave me a lens with which to view the gaping absence of voices like mine – Pacific, political, raw, performative. In terms of being exposed to New Zealand poetry, it was Hone Tuwhare’s gutsy voice and concrete grindings of the line that got me excited, as well as Sam Hunt’s embodied lyricism and bardish behaviours!  These poets thrilled me because they made poetry relevant to my way of being.  Yet, I didn’t write in response to anyone else’s poetry, that is, it didn’t feel as if poetry with a capital ‘p’ belonged to me until I met the words of black American women poets like Maya Angelou and Audrey Lorde. And coming across the black feminist theory of bell hooks was also a game changer.  Suddenly the right to write and claim space was not only an option, it was a responsibility, not only to one’s perceived community, but one’s self.

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)?

The earliest poem I can remember being enamoured with was ‘The Highwayman’.  It simply stunned me and I became obsessed with its drama, sacrifice, violence, and redemption, along with its haunting clip clopping rhythms.  I had an illustrated book of poems and its picture also haunted me.  All the other poems in the book were babyish in comparison.  This was adult and therefore, a real poem!

Your poems are as alive on the page as they are when you perform them. They draw upon a passionate engagement with life (there is heart at work), but they also have a political edge. Plus of course there is the vitality of sound — from repetition to rhythm to rhyme. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

I guess it begins with movement, like, something has to move me emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.  And then it has to fit right in my mouth, which doesn’t necessarily mean it must rhyme, but that the words must be able to mill about together on the tongue. Fitting in the mouth and on the tongue often means that the words dance with each other, shadowing each other’s rhythms.  Juxtapositions are important in order to disrupt expectation and widen the reading audience.  For example, what happens when Muay Thai kickboxing, a traditional Tuvalu dance, and grief move together in the same space, on the same page?  And then a poem has to move someone else.  The most gratifying response to a poem I’ve received lately was when I penned the long poem ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ on the walls of the old Waiheke Police Station holding cell (converted into the Waikare Maori Art Gallery).  It’s four walls became the four sides of a boxing ring.  Janine, the curator, told me about a couple of tourists who came to see the exhibition.  The husband couldn’t get his wife to leave.  For a good half hour she sat in the cell  reading and weeping. That’s gratifying.

What PI poets might not have come to our attention that you would recommend?

Grace Teuila Taylor launches her first collection, ‘Afakasi Speaks’, published by *, in Hawai’i. She is a stunning Niu poet able to bridge the page with the stage and back again. She co-founded the South Auckland Poets Collective, gives back to the community, is sensitive, strong and humble.  I love Grace and her work.  She really demonstrates how poetry can be an emancipatory vehicle in so many ways.

Do you think your writing has changed since your startling debut with Fast Talking PI? For example, how does your new collection link back to that? And then move away from it?

The signature poem in Dark Sparring is ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ and is a distant cousin to ‘Fast Talking PI’.  They both echo Anne Waldeman’s ‘Fast Speaking Woman’ – the bones are there in both.  End line repetition, its chant aesthetic, the reclaiming ‘I’ – it’s all related and ‘Kickboxing Cancer’ is a return to the woman- centred focus Waldeman began with.  Its Pacificness is less overt, which isn’t a bad thing.  It’s more implicit in the tone, mood, and empowering politics of the piece. Subtle references to Tangaroa (Maori God of the Sea) and Tagaloa (Samoan Supreme Being) are made but a Pacificness pervades the entire piece – it is the centre, not the margin – it is my voice as woman, kickboxer, and Pacifican!


Auckland University Press page

nzepc page

New Zealand Book Council page

Radio NZ interview

Best New Zealand Poems here

Blackmail Press page

An Interview: Anne Kennedy ‘everything was up for question, and so the thing was to keep on searching”

Anne Kennedy mugshot

Anne Kennedy has many strings to her writing bow. She writes fiction, poetry and screenplays, and has gathered wide readership with her ability to draw upon a keen intellect, empathy, humour and a musical ear. This year she won the Poetry Category of The New Zealand Post Book Awards, with her collection The Darling North (Auckland University Press, 2012); a decision that delighted her poetry fans (Sarah Jane Barnett, who was also shortlisted, sung the praises of Anne’s poetry in a Listener interview). Anne’s debut collection, Sing-song (AUP, 2003)  won The Montana New Zealand Book Awards and her follow-up, The Time of the Giants (AUP, 2005), was short-listed. Very few New Zealand poets have received such sustained honours (perhaps Cilla McQueen?). This year also saw the release of her critically acclaimed novel, The Last Days of the National Costume. Anne has spent a number of years teaching fiction and screenwriting at the University of Hawai’i, as well as teaching part-time at Manukau Institute of Technology.

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Anne’s poetry is a joy to read. While you might find traces of similarity, her poetry is unlike  that of any other New Zealand poet. Narrative energy is at the heart of her poems, poems that range from long to longer to book length. Her poems emerge from a life of reading and the reading of life. In ‘The Darling North’ poem there is a strong debt to Frederick E Manning’s Old New Zealand along with North by Seamus Heaney (she acknowledges these debts in her endnote), but the poem reaches deep into other experiences. There is a vivacity of detail, words that tremble and surprise on the line, a movement that is as much onwards as it is hesitation. Onwards, because you are in the sway and swerve of narrative motion, hesitation because the elasticity and surprise of words stalls you. Each line is a musical haven, where a note is struck and then counterbalanced or echoed or augmented:

I put my coat on over my nightdress and navigate

the trembling upper veranda, its nervous


kauri planks penned like wild horses under my feet

and I bounce down the foaming moonlit steps


to the garden, where a cat scallops, and hedgehog

snuffles obliquely into flax. It is cool.


Anne kindly agreed to an interview for Poetry Shelf:

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?

To me, writing is partly about searching, and that’s what I was brought up to do. There were always books, and they were treasured (from Paradise Lost to A Town Like Alice), but I don’t know how anyone got time to read them because the house was busy with people, debate, drama. Looking back, we contended with philosophical gulfs on a daily basis: My parents came from different social classes, the Sixties happened, and in those days the Catholic schools peddled a sense of difference from mainstream society. (I don’t know if this was good or bad, but the artist needs to stand apart some of the time, if we are to believe Bourdieu). Overall, everything was up for question, and so the thing was to keep on searching.

One day, not long after I started school I, realized with a rush that if you could write, you could write a book. I threw a sickie (easy in our house), and wrote a tiny poem book (in Anne Carson’s ‘off hours’) in which every page ended in the sound ‘ee’. I was very proud of it and after that never stopped writing.

I don’t think we can underestimate how important literacy is, ‘in the first place’ (to quote Janet Frame), for creative writing. A while back, people were chuckling over John Key handing out Prime Minister’s awards for ‘literacy’ to three of our most eminent writers. No doubt he meant literature, but there’s some truth in the mistake. It all begins with being given the power to read and write well, yet more and more children miss out. I’m lucky that being taught early on meant the page represented freedom, only freedom. I’ve taught students who are intensely creative and great wordsmiths but struggle to translate that into writing because they’ve been failed by the education system.

Poetry on the page begins when you are five.

I was never without a novel (Rosemary Sutcliffe, C. S Lewis, Dodie Smith) , but when I was about seven I was given Peacock Pie, a collection of little story poems for children by Walter de la Mare, which I loved, and worse, copied. Later I was given an anthology for kids called This or That or Nothing, which was more confronting, with poems about nuclear bombs and suicide. It had an assortment of wonky fonts and a bright orange cover – very 1968. Poetry suddenly seemed subversive and shocking. I lived in that book for a year – and also copied it shamelessly. This is how people learn, I just didn’t know it then. (This is why your work with children’s poetry is so important, Paula.)

There was also the Bible, listened to at Mass. (‘Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not neither do they spin.’) I don’t remember anyone ever cracking open the text themself: it was always aural, and the rhythms and the far-fetched stories are still with me. That might seem contradictory to my point about literacy, but literature is the spoken written down.

You had developed a substantial reputation as a fiction writer (innovative, musical, poetic, complex, with strong relations with the real world, imagined worlds, and literary worlds), before you published poetry. What drew you to this different form?

I always wrote poetry. My first two fiction books are partly in poem form, but yes, I did leap over a kind of doorstep. My fiction seemed to be being read by a poetry audience which is strangely more accepting. Also I felt like my fiction was a failure, and I needed to stop!

I agree that your fiction is sumptuous and poetic (no way a failure!) and generates a reading experience that is quite breathtaking. Your poems are narrative driven — as a reader I get caught up in the arc and sidetracks of the narrative impulse, but there is so much more going on (as with your fiction). On so many occasions, musicality is the poem’s lifeblood, along with luminous and often surprising detail, light-footed and shifting syntax, and snatches of story that draw people and places close. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

One of the key things is a kind of key, or a tonal centre. As a reader, I find myself looking for a departure from a central idea or theme and a return to it – there’s a glorious tension in that. I’m drawn to modern and contemporary narrative poets like Anne Carson, Albert Wendt, W. S. Merwin, Williams Carlos Williams, T.S. Elliot, and also and especially Virgil, who daringly stray a long way from ‘home’, but inevitably return. When Vela travels away from his time, his people, his seriousness, even his story, coming back is all the better.

While I can admire a short poem that is a thing in itself but not a story, I couldn’t write one to save myself. There would be so much pressure on it! A poem only lives for me if it is part of a network, a litany.

On a line level, I love the element of surprise, but also plainness, because surprise is only interesting when it is set like a gem. Ian Wedde is very good at this.

Yes! I think it is the plainness that elbows room in the surprise and the surprise that makes little leaps in the plainness. You continue to write poetry, you continue to write fiction. Is this a supportive relationship? What is different about doing one rather than the other?

I wish I knew, and I’d stick to one or the other, probably fiction! Sometimes I try to work out the differences between the genres but can never get very far.

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

            My brother, Philip, was the first adult poet I read. Most of what we still have of his was written in his teens. He died at 22. I’m working on a sequence grouped around one of his poems, which I find a very moving experience. It’s taking me a long time. (I hope I haven’t jinxed it by talking about it.)

There were poetry books in the house because of Philip: Hone Tuwhare, James K Baxter, Sam Hunt, who were so important for their New Zealand vernacular – and because they are incredibly good. But they’re all men, and as I got older I sought out women poets – Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, and imagist poets like H. D.

When I first read Gertrude Stein, it was like a wall crashing down. But another went up, a Steinish wall: I think I embarked on a years-long phase of not caring about the reader. I put it down to not caring enough about people. Emotional maturity is important in a writer.

All these poets I read as a reader and as a writer. I don’t separate the two.

Perhaps this emotional maturing strengths the presence of heart in the risks you take as a writer. What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

Some young poets I’ve noticed recently make you swell with the knowledge that this business is in good hands: Sarah Jane Barnett, Amy Brown, Ya-Wen Ho, Courtney Sina Meredith, Steven Toussaint, Ashleigh Young. And Ellie Catton’s The Luminaries is intensely poetic. I read it in the same way as I do a poem.

I agree with you on The Luminaries. A number of reviews have used the word ‘luminous.’ Poetically luminous, at the level of the sentence for a start. Do you think your poetry writing has changed since Sing-song was published in 2003?

I hope so. I hope I’ve got better, but you can never really know. As Flannery O’Connor says, ‘Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.’


You have spent the past decade living between New Zealand and Hawaii. Is a sense of home an important factor as you write?  I wonder if your writing is a way of laying down roots, both familial and literary. Or do you feel torn between places and thus restless as a writer?

            I laid down roots through writing a long time ago, and moved on from that. I think that’s quite a common pattern. But moving between countries, having two realities, has undoubtedly played into the collision of worlds that the imagination continues to be.

Do you think the poetry writing landscape in New Zealand is vastly different than that in Hawaii? Is ethnicity or race an issue?

Ah, this is all so complicated! Ethnicity is a hot issue in Hawai`i. People talk about it constantly, and are defined by it (‘that Chinese girl’ kind of thing), which is at once refreshing and difficult. And of course poetry lives in that world. One of the big recent movements is Pidgin poetry, which has such a gorgeous sound because it is essentially a spoken language. Two of my favourite Local poets who write in Pidgin are Lois Ann Yamanaka (who also writes novels), and Ann Inoshita: ‘Going come dark so my madda call me / fo go back inside da house’ (‘TV’). Indigenous Pacific poetry with a political drive is also strong in Hawai`i, with poets like Brandy McDougall, Craig Santos Perez, and Robert Sullivan, being part of the Pacific-wide picture. (See my piece on Hawai`i poetry in Ka Mate Ka Ora: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/kmko/03/ka_mate03_kennedy.pdf)

On returning to Aotearoa, I remembered that ethnicity is like sex, you can’t talk about it publicly. And yet, this is a very racist country. Maori and Polynesian poetry, and in fact all non-white poetry, is largely ghettoized. I’ve been shocked to be involved in event after event that is entirely white. I’d forgotten that could even happen. So while it is considered tasteless to mention ethnicity, people happily exclude based on it.

I put this racism down to a reluctance to entertain different aesthetics. The kind of poetry I like is ABOUT being open to difference, to different codes, to different musics.

Pakeha writers have got to hope that when they are in the minority, which will happen eventually, the people in the majority remain open to the aesthetics of other.

What irks you in poetry?

The ‘isn’t-my-life-lovely’ poem.

What delights you?

Curious narrative. Hidden form. Tossed-offness. Humour. And the thing I didn’t know would delight me until I read it.


Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

It’s probably too nepotistic of me to mention Voice Carried My Family, by Robert Sullivan, so: Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, by Tusiata Avia; Thicket, by Anna Jackson; The Lifeguard, by Ian Wedde.

Name three overseas poetry books that you have loved.

I’ll limit myself to North America for now: Glass, Irony, and God, by Anne Carson; Povel, by Geraldine Kim; Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands, by Martín Espada.

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?

Being with family trumps everything.

But lots of other things. If you feed only off creative writing and its world, you might end up with the literary equivalent of mad cow disease.

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?

Form is a kind of gravity. If there wasn’t any, everything would fly away. I enjoy formal constraints and the freedom to muck them up. For instance, in The Family Songbook John Newton’s handling of meter is spectacular, and yet the lines on the surface seem roughed up in best possible sense. That kind of controlled spokenness I can only dream of writing.

In the end, the elements of a poem are there for the greater good. I like Eavan Boland’s quite essentialist take on what images do in a poem: ‘Images are not ornaments; they are truths.’

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

How could we live without it now? It brings people together in new configurations. Also, the written word is lifeblood again. It was languishing for a while there.

You have dedicated significant time to teaching creative writing at The University of Hawaii and, in a more part time role, at Manukau Institute of Technology. What do you see as important in your role as mentor?

I think I’m there to open some conceptual doors. It took me a while to work out process. Teaching is like constructing a narrative – in what order should you introduce ideas so they make sense? I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get this right, usually using close readings of texts. It’s exhilarating to have a class share a text, to get it, enjoy it, learn from it. (I got some of that just from reading and talking to people, but you don’t get a degree from hanging out with friends!)

I was surprised to find that I like teaching students who will probably not end up as writers, it’s just something that will enrich their lives. But of course it is also incredibly exciting to work with someone who is dripping with talent.

Women writers have often managed a writing life along with domestic demands and have been denigrated for writing that embraces domestic concerns. Any thoughts on this? Is there still a case for feminist appraisals of writing and the institutions that both reproduce and critique it?

Poetry isn’t sealed off from daily life, so until women have equal pay, equal opportunity, and don’t have to live in fear, feminist principles must have a place in writing and criticism. Although women poets are published in greater numbers now in Aotearoa (it could hardly be fewer than when it was just Jan Kemp!), there’s still chauvinism, still old farts and not so old farts who view women’s domestic-themed poetry as ‘soft’.

The big names of poetry are still mostly men, and the theorists we revert to are men even though there’ve been generations of feminist theorists now.

When I was young, feminist poets and theorists were vital to my vision of myself as a writer. To my list above I could add Denise Levertov, Anna Akhmatova, Anne Waldman, and Hélène Cixous, Elaine Showalter, and Simone de Beauvoir. I don’t think I would be in print without them. I’m worried we may have stopped making consciously feminist poetry too soon. But Pasifika women seem to not have forgotten the struggle. Tusiata Avia, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Courtney Sina Meredith are inspiring a new generation of young women.

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

As long as I can be trapped from November on, Bernadette Hall’s forthcoming book, Life & Customs.

Thank you, Paula.

Thank’s Anne. Bernadette’s book is due in November and is published by Victoria University Press. I will review it on Poetry Shelf.


Auckland University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

Scottish Poetry Library introduction to Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre

Anne Kennedy’s author page at Allen and Unwin

Anne Kennedy on the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre

Anne Kennedy in Best New Zealand Poems 2005

Anne Kennedy’s bibliography in the Auckland University Library’s New Zealand Literature File

NZ on Screen page

Interview for Unity Books

Review of The Darling North in Metro

Review of The Darling North in Landfall

Review of The Darling North in NZ Books

Review of The Darling North in The Listener

Bernadette Hall talks to Poetry Shelf: All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever


Bernadette Hall is an award-winning poet, editor and teacher living at a beach north of Christchurch. She has published numerous collections of poetry, but is one of those poets who gives more to the community than just her marvelous poems. Bernadette co-founded the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch and has continued to mentor young writers. As editor she has placed two New Zealand women poets under a welcome spotlight. She edited Like Love Poems: Selected Poems of Joanna Margaret Paul (2006) and The Judas Tree: Poems by Lorna Staveley Anker (2013). Both are terrific additions to the local, poetry landscape.

With a new collection about to be launched by Victoria University Press on November 1st, it seemed the perfect time to interview Bernadette. I will post a review of Life & Customs at the beginning of November.

Bernadette’s poems are lyrical havens, where musical chords are words that chime and where rhythms shift in undercurrents of beat. As you read, your body unwittingly absorbs the music, the delicious flecks of assonance, alliteration and rhyme. Her poems lead you back out into the world, to the detail that makes the poet’s experience shine not just at a physical level but at a level where things less easily put into words take root (beauty, love, grief, despair, doubt, intuition, compassion, kindness, thought). She is not afraid to use similes and when she uses them they refresh the poem (‘The rain is like mice scrabbling in the ceiling’ and ‘It’s like walking into a room that’s full/ of McCahons, you know, the way the air changes’). Sometimes a poem is a home for anecdote (much came from her six-month residency in Ireland for The Lustre Jug). Sometimes it is a home for sights and sounds and information that the poet with her eyes and ears open to the world has gleaned (a little like a poet-magpie). If you haven’t yet discovered the luminous attractions of Bernadette’s poems, her collection The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2009) is the perfect place to start (find a hammock, add The Ponies (VUP, 2007) and The Merino Princess: Selected Poems (VUP, 2004) and you will be set!).

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The interview:

Dear Paula

Here’s a little something, a sort of reply to your questions.

I haven’t really got a lot to say about poetry at the moment. I think the teaching gene has finally been extinguished in me.  I’m not so sure about things that I used to be sure of a year or so ago.  I have to think that this is a healthy state of affairs.

All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever.


My mother loved language.

Her conversation sparkled with word play and old sayings from Central Otago and from her Irish family. These sayings were rich and dangerous, they had everyone laughing. There was a sharp wit and scathing irony in them. If we complained about a petticoat that hung down a little or a spot that had turned up on our chins just before we went up town with our friends, she’d say ‘A blind man on a galloping horse wouldn’t see that.’ An expression of high praise from her sister, my aunt, was ‘Why you’re the girl your mother forgot to drown.’ Haha, it was outrageous and dangerous  and full of affection.  Heehee, saying one thing and meaning another, isn’t that supposed to be a definition of poetry?

My mother’s mother had a few words of the Irish. My two sisters and I have inherited an affection for what we call the Irish gift of charming, scurrilous repartee. ‘My arse to you and that’s behind me’ my grandmother would say, apparently.  But never to her grand-children.  My mother would quote her if we were playing up, digging our heels in.  ‘Oh, bum through the letterbox,’ she’d say. And that was that. It might have been an acknowledgement of being rendered speechless but it was also a declaration of authority. There were to be no more arguments or protestations. We’d have to laugh but we’d also have to do what we were told.  Even more so after my father died, felled by a heart attack, right in front of me, I’d just arrived home from school and I was sixteen.

To be grief-stricken. To speak to no-one in my family, not my mother or my sisters, for a year                 ( something I’d ‘forgotten’ until one of my sisters reminded me and then I was amazed that something in my own inexplicable private life as I had experienced it, had had an impact on someone else, that it had been visible when all that time I had thought I was invisible.)  To be so angry.

At Holy Name School in Dunedin ( site now of the Students Union, only a huge walnut tree remains)  I learnt language as mystery in the Latin Mass. I learnt musical rhythms in the repetitions of the Litany of the Saints many of whom had the most remarkable names, Cosmas and Chrosogynus for example.  Ora pro nobis, we’d chorus, ‘pray for us.’  And if two saints were invoked in the same breath, we’d use the plural orate pro nobis. Not one word of Maori passed our lips but plenty of the language of the Roman Empire, of civilisation and theological sureties.

We performed poems in a poetry choir conducted by Miss Molly Randall.  ‘I must go down to the sea again / to the lonely sea and the sky’ and ‘one of them two of them three of them four of them / seabirds on the shore.’ We copied out poems by Rupert Brooke, Scottish ballads (so marvellously tragic), Milton on his blindness and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on love.  Eileen Duggan was a Catholic so of course we learnt her poems. I loved especially her lines about the little silver consecration bell ringing in the untamed darkness of the New Zealand bush. Now it’s her doubting poems that I admire.

Belief and unbelief, the tension between them being a virtue, I have been told, in the poems I wrote in response to the sculptures by Llew Summers,  the Stations of the Cross, which remain sound but imprisoned in the destructed Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch. Anthony Ritchie has written a symphony for full orchestra and solo soprano in which he uses words from these poems. The work will be premiered in Christchurch on February 22, 2014.

As a child, I wrote poems for my friend Annette. She set me a topic and paid me a penny and I gave her a poem.  On things like Dogs ( I was passionately in love with dogs, desperate to have one but I don’t think we could have afforded one) and Spring and The Circus.  I wrote a long essay on The Sea.  It delighted Mother St Joan and got me a straight A. But the real pleasure was in sitting at the little table in the window of the spare room, looking out at the poplars and the willows and the river, the Leith.  Being solitary and absorbed. Silent, lost to myself and fully alive. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that the desire for this kind of internal ‘room of my own’ awoke in me again.

I always loved the sea. My dad and I were the bravest when it came to swimming. He’d float on his back, going up and down on the waves. I played tennis. I played the cello, in the King Edward Tech orchestra conducted by Mr Waldon Mills. Later on I was in the Otago University orchestra led by Bill Southgate. Music and Latin and freedom.  I climbed trees with my friend Nicki. I ran wild along the track to the Gardens, I spent hours puddling around in the Leith, catching cockabullies and tiny weedy lobsters. I planted flower seeds – I was born to do manual work, to be a gardener, digging, pruning, lugging, mulching, turning the compost heap, raking the little pebble paths that go for grass out here in the droughty Hurunui. I can remember my Dad’s mother, a little Northern Irish migrant, a farmer, a prohibitionist, running out onto the road in Leith Valley behind the milkman’s cart.  I helped her shovel up the horse’s droppings to feed the pansies in the garden.

I have spent a lifetime immersed in the language of poetry and plays as a high school teacher, specialising in English, Latin and Classical Studies. The poet, Iain Lonie, tried to teach me Greek. His poetry and he himself, transfigured by his love for Judith, were more successful in teaching me ‘to prize what is of value’ than anything else.  John Dickson’s presence, the way he reads his poems, the fact that like Geoff Cochrane, he makes poetry visible and desirable in his very being, the fact that in conversation with these two and with Joanna Margaret Paul, I felt/feel myself getting nourishment for that sometimes hidden part of my life, the way, by my given nature, I tend to hide what I treasure the most.

When I read essays by Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney and Nuala Ni Dhomnhaill, poems by Wallace Stevens and Michele Leggott, John Berryman and  Hone Tuwhare, I am often going around the same traps but each time I find something new, something that I need, something that changes the work I am doing at the time.

I admire the poems that Tusiata Avia is writing at the moment. ‘The beauty of the husband’ by Anne Carson and The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn.  Novels by John Coetzee, Nigel Cox and Janet Frame. The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro. I have just started on Jorge Luis Borges, better late than never.  Max Gate by Damien Wilkins and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton are on my to be read list. Time and again I read Dia by Michele Leggott,  The Rocky Shore by Jenny Bornholdt and The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens.  This week I’m in love with some wonderful, edgy poems written by a student I’m currently mentoring, they make me laugh out loud. And with a few lines from Thomas Merton’s ‘Book of Hours’ – a book which was given to me as a rather surprising gift :

‘No matter how simple discourse may be

     it is never simple enough.

     No matter how simple thought may be,

     it is never simple enough.

     No matter how simple love may be,

     it is never simple enough.’

That’s how I want to write this week, with simplicitas. Next week it might be all about elaborations.

When I was a teenager I worked in the school holidays in Buntings Brush Factory, operating machines that made toilet brushes and hair-curlers. I was very happy working there.  The mix of people was a real eye-opener   For some of the workers, Buntings offered the safety and respect of a sheltered workshop.  On my last day in the December just before I turned eighteen, before I headed off to university in the following year because I didn’t want to work in a bank as the Career Adviser who visited our school had advised, a gentle older man called Bruce gave me a copy of Allen Curnow’s The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) as a farewell present. I still have it. There’s a poem there that said everything I could have imagined at the time about love and sex and longing.

‘Beloved your love is poured to enchant all the land

         the great bull falls still the opossum turns from his chatter

         and the thin nervous cats pause and the strong oak-trees stand

         entranced and the gum’s restless bark-strip is stilled from its clatter.

from ‘Flow at Full Moon’ by R. A. K. Mason.

The poem spoke to me and for me. It was like a voice from another planet.

When I write a poem, I want to break through. To be completely lost. So that the words aren’t mine, so that the flow is automatic. It’s like flying if it’s going well and that’s just the first flush of it. That’s when the best, the strangest lines make their appearance. But the whole usually takes more time and patience, allowing everything and then letting it all settle and find itself.  The aim being to make something that’s truthful and brave and beautiful. I like to give myself a bit of a fright, to push out beyond what I’d thought was possible. Poetry is the ground on which I can let myself go.  I can throw myself away and hope in a mad kind of way that I’ll be found and how liberating is that.

Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Canterbury University Press page

Best NZ Poems edited by Bernadette Hall here

My review of The Lustre Jug in The NZ Herald