Tag Archives: poetry shelf conversation

Poetry Shelf conversation: Rebecca Hawkes

Photo credit: Ebony Lamb

although the flighty vampires suckling so obscenely
are the only creatures that really belong in this scene
not the dogs or the willows or the girl
or the gorse with its raptures of yellow

that invasive stellation annexing the slopes
to wrestle black beech at the bush boundary
the smells of pollinated combat mingling by the water
sultry as marzipan and honeydew casting a heady spell

over the colonised valley the weeds like her very presence here
a legacy of other people’s blood and money
though she has yet to understand this history is her own
still finding a place in her bones let alone the land


from ‘Noonday gorsebloom’


Rebecca Hawkes caught my attention in AUP New Poets 5 (Anna Jackson’s reboot of the series). I became an instant and avid fan. Rebecca’s debut full collection Meat Lovers is now out in the world and is attracting a solar system of love. Freya Daly Sadgrove wrote this for the blurb: ‘Rebecca Hawkes is the unmatched empress of viscera. Thrillingly, perverse, utterly compelling – you eat these poems like overripe peaches, or your own tongue.’

To celebrate poetry, and the arrival of Meat Lovers, Rebecca and I have an ongoing email conversation over the past month or so.

Paula: Before we discuss your sublime debut collection, these are strange and challenging times. I am finding books help. Writing helps. I just read Rachel O’Neill’s stunning Requiem for a Fruit and it was such an uplift. Inspiring. Have you read any books lately that have stuck with you?

Rebecca: Lately I’ve been disappearing into gaming a fair amount -dystopian epic sequel Horizon Forbidden West just came out and I’ve been abandoning our world for the tragic beauty of that story. I’ve also been reading a lot, enjoying the first releases in the bounty of local poetry arriving this year. The Surgeon’s Brain by Oscar Upperton stuck in my craw, as an incisive testament to an extraordinary life. It’s  a powerful reminder of the ongoing need for rediscovery of queer history, and how we continue to fight for our place in the record. It inhabits the character of James Barry, a brilliant transgender military surgeon in the 1800s. Oscar’s work is precise and immersive – it felt like being dropped right into Barry’s whirring mind at various moments throughout his storied life. Reading the book is like speedrunning a novelised biography in a way that fits my fractured attention span, while also having plenty of room to breathe with Barry through his gnarliest thoughts. 

I’ve also just read Chris Tse’s much anticipated Super Model Minority. Rainbows and rage, passion and pride, it meets my pent-up energy in the pandemic. This book evolves Chris’ previous work reckoning with racist and homophobic violence, and the radical possibilities of joy in a doomscroller’s world.

I’ve also been lucky to receive a copy of I got you babe, the first publication by new publishing collective Taraheke/Bushlawyer. I’m so glad to see this in the world. I got you babe includes poems and essays by the five writers, holding their power and care and grief. Importantly, it places the forthcoming anthology No Other Place To Stand (which I’ve been co-editing with essa, Erik and Jordan for the past few years), in a richer, wider ecosystem of critical and creative work around climate, capitalism and colonisation. As we get closer to the anthology launching at last (it has gone to print!), it’s daunting how little has changed since the start of this project and the pandemic – the poems sent to us in 2020 have only become more (alarmingly) prescient.  The critical urgency of I got you babe is a breath of fresh air.

2022 is, despite all the overall horribleness of Current Events, set to be a killer year for poetry. I’m eager for the new books by Anahera Gildea, Michaela Keeble, Anne-Marie Te Whiu, Erik Kennedy, Jordan Hamel, essa may ranapiri, Cadence Chung, Khadro Mohamed, Michael Steven… My bundle from Titus Books just arrived and I’m reading Chris Holdaway’s Gorse Poems tonight!

Meatlovers Rebecca Hawkes, Auckland University Press, 2022

Paula: How was it, writing your sublime Meat Lovers?

Rebecca: Well, I’ve been working towards Meat Lovers for some while. After Softcore coldsores came out in AUP New Poets 5 in 2019, I wanted to do more with some of the down-home-on-the-farm poems, and build a more cohesive full-length collection set firmly in the rural gothic. The title Meat Lovers came early on. It led to the eventual bisected structure of the book, the two halves of one cracked geode. But getting there was a meandering process… 

I bloody love to write a poem, any poem, as a wry joke or full-throated cry. The puzzle and thrill of tinkering with verse ‘til it moves on its own steam and I get to watch the poem skitter off in its own chosen direction is reason enough to keep writing them. And each poem is only one weeny little fragment in the churning vortex / hot mess of whatever’s going on in my head, so a lot of them live in completely different parts of my world that would never touch outside of a word document.  A lot of poems therefore ended up on the cutting-room floor for this manuscript, as I had to corral a more cohesive set of little machines that could work as a pack for a more focused sequence. I had so many ‘spare’ poems that there were more than enough for another rather different manuscript – which in a funny turn of events was a runner-up in the Kathleen Grattan Award at OUP last year. Maybe I could have published that altogether more playful and girl-gamerish book first instead, but Meat Lovers holds the work I was most compelled to delve into, mining some darker recesses of my home and heart, and way to still live in some places from my past that I can never really return to.

Once I’d gold-panned for the vibes/themes of this book (food, farming, foolish love) and gathered my first set of poems, structuring it was the challenge – I’d never tried to be so purposeful in a manuscript order before this. I’m grateful for the early eyes of friends like Rebecca K Reilly and essa ranapiri who helped me zero in on what really mattered for the shape of this work. And then of course I kept on writing fresh poems and trying to find places for the new darlings, even as the manuscript really needed to be pruned. How has writing this book been? What is it ever like to make art, to do something freeing but also serious, disarmingly ironic but nonetheless excruciatingly sincere? At turns it has been deep work and easy fun, therapy and tomfoolery, surfing the ecstasy of creation or gruelling arduous labour. Writing the book was humbling, cos making art always kicks my ass, but obviously it’s me doing the kicking as well as my buttcheek with the boot print on it.

‘Frenzy’, Rebecca Hawkes, 2021

Paula: Love the idea that incongruous things in the world co-exist in the neighbourhood of the page! And love how we can never pin the writing process down to one easy answer. Yet for me it is the best thing in this wild and challenging and complicated world. Energy boosting. Heart easing. Body uplifting. Whether reading or writing. I get a similar reaction when I look at your paintings. I have lived with an artist for over thirty years and we inhabit a shared space, but also private and utterly necessarily separate spaces each day. How is it for you both painting and writing? Reading your poems and sinking into your art it is a yin and yang experience for me – the one electrified by the other.

Rebecca: For me the painterly and poetic forms are so intertwined, you could never ask me to choose one, or to go without them. That was why it was so important to me to do my own cover art, even if digital painting isn’t my main medium… and even though what I mostly see in my own paintings is how much learning I still have to do! My necessary poetry-space is laptop-sized and portable, so it’s a more readily accessible art than the ritual of setting up paints and solvents, and then cleaning brushes when I’m bleary-eyed past my bedtime. Sometimes I go months without having – or making – time to paint. But I somehow find the hours when exhibitions are coming up, like right now …

When I’m not both writing and painting I’m not my whole self. They’re things I’ve always done. As a child I constantly drew chimeras, collaging together the most interesting limbs from my gen 1 and 2 Pokémon handbooks and the dinosaurs I was obsessed with – an Arcanine head and mane on a Houndoom’s punk pup frame, equipped with the wings of a Charizard and an Ankylosaurus club tail for bashing. What’s it called when you’re a horse girl but for dragons? I was that. For me a dragon is still the ideal animal, an impossible assemblage of apex attributes, wise and prideful and wild… While my art subjects are often less creaturely now, dragon-building is still basically how I approach both paintings and poems. I rip little shreds of potent detail out of life or dreams, and solder them together to make something that has its own new roar.

Painting is where I most keenly feel the gap between the work I aspire to make and the limits of my capability. I’m not a planner, working out decent compositions in thumbnail sketches. Instead I dive right in with colour and a couple of starting images, then see what happens. Same for poetry, but with poems nobody can see the smudged under-layers lurking beneath the surface of the finished piece… Word docs are forgivingly blank behind the text, so no-one sees my orphanage of random lines, loose chimera limbs waiting to be assembled. 

Right now I’m in that horrible gulf between expectation and reality where I’m blocking in a painting, waiting for images to emerge from the mess, knowing that every mistake will be baked in forever, making slapstick attempts to shield the hideous draft with my whole body when friends visit. But when I am actually at work on a painting I let go of all that shame. I get so absorbed I might forget to breathe, eat, drink, urinate – lost in flow-focus, crouched over my canvas between the TV and the couch. As you say, artists need necessary space, to focus and to dream… but I find I get by with surprisingly little of it. 

When I paint I kneel on the carpet because there is no space in my apartment for a studio (see: me having feelings about this when I went to see Hilma af Klint’s stupendous body of work), and because painting is a kind of prayer activity anyway. It’s an act of faith, isn’t it, to scratch out some small artwork in response to the shabby miracle of the world? Writing is like that too, a deeply interior creative practice that requires me to be open, curious, trusting and responsive to whatever drifts up from my subconscious. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think my processes are all that spiritually glorious, or my artwork particularly accomplished, but when the going’s good it is transporting, and as I give my energy over to a work it breathes life back into me. Am I a pompous loon, indulging in surrender to my own bad art, while the signals of my partner’s PS4 controller and sounds of gamer swordplay beam through my body as he slays monsters in Elden Ring? Sure. But I can’t not do it.

In painting and poems I’m meditative and open, but also working hard in pursuit of something that mainly eludes me – but maybe I’ll get it next time, and this is what keeps me growing (I hope) as an artist. It also keeps me hungry for others’ work. Yes to everything you said about the energising and uplifting nature of sinking into others’ art! Reading outside of myself is crucial to my writing, and looking carefully at other people’s visual art is essential to my painting. Even though making my own art is a solitary act, if I was in a vacuum without others’ work to delight in and explore, I doubt I’d make much of anything. Do you feel this with poetry?

Paula: Absolutely. The sheer joy that the poetry of others gives me is immeasurable. I thrive on it. Like an extreme vitamin boost. For me, the process of writing is intimate, secret, unfathomable, but it is in debt to writing communities past and present. Thus my continued drive to keep Poetry Shelf alive. And I know the doubt, that aching gap between reality and expectation, I don’t know if it ever goes away. I don’t know if I can ever bear to be published again, aside from children’s books. Tell me about your connections to poetry communities. I am thinking of Show Ponies for a start! I asked Chris Tse if he was a social poet, a hermit poet or something in between!

Rebecca: I totally agree on writing being a personal activity but also inextricable from communities around and before us! Even the solitary work of writing is not completely alone… I’m always reading so my writing is inevitably in conversation with other people’s work, and eventually a handful of trusted first-readers who are the unfortunate recipients of my little jokes. Often my poems are elaborate jokes for my friends. I don’t mean to diminish the poetry by saying that… But my Wellington poet-pals are the people whose response most matters to me, and whose support buoys me along, people I trust completely with my beautiful dark twisted fripperies. I also tend to be most motivated to write when there’s a deadline, which is often some event where I know (or hope) people will show up. So even though I’ve written alone for most of my life, I’d characterise myself as a social poet these days, and am so grateful to be part of a lively community.

Show Ponies is its own beast – Freya is the horsepower behind that. But it reflects the creative connections that are possible in a community like ours, where people are good sports with open hearts. There’s a lot of trust involved in doing something big and silly. It’s as vulnerable and sincere as any earnest confessional poem. But a bunch of poets who aren’t afraid of looking like fools together is a powerful thing. To manifest your popstar destiny you have to commit to the bit!

Rebecca: I’ve missed in-person events dearly through the pandemic, and it feels miraculous that Chris and I got to launch our books to people live and in the flesh. I’m interested in what you said here about bearing to be published. Stacey Teague recently asked posted on Twitter I’m trying to figure out why I should try to get my manuscript published and what motivates other people to get their books published and several people have just said “so you can have a party!” which obviously is something you can just do (well, depending on relative pandemic risk) without all the work of writing and vulnerability of publishing at all. For my sins, I was one of the people who’d said ‘party’ right away. But the launch party for a book is so important to me, bringing all someone’s solitary work into a shared public sphere – where the book now exists as its own object and something that will literally belong to other people, outside of the writer’s brain and screens. Aside from getting to celebrate the launch, the meticulously considered process of putting a manuscript together and then having the book itself exist in hard-copy for real has been so rewarding. I’ve been publishing poems around the place for ages, but this first book feels so precious. It’s been a very different process from blatting out last-minute poems and has taught me so much more about this craft. But the blessing of poems is that we can do whatever we want with them, right? There is no requirement to write books, or to publish the poems in any format.

lambs explode onto the scene like popcorn
kernels such freshly detonated fluff
antigravity mammals no heart leaps higher
than the skipping lambs flocked in dozens
barely touching the ground for the joy
full fortnight in which they invent their limbs
before they settle down to their true vocation
grazing themselves into flesh factories
babies babies babies babies
the loin the chop the shank
the juicy vacuum-sealed rack
and great value barbecue meat pack
stunned slit hung bled gutted skinned


from ‘Hardcore pastorals’

Paula: Exactly! I was out on a rare road trip across the harbour bridge this morning and it felt like the route was lined with poems! Just the sensation of travelling got miniature poems roaming in my head. Who knows what I will do with them!

I reviewed Meat Lovers for Kete Books and absolutely loved it. First up I loved its music. Like I really love it like I might love a breathtaking album. Do you play a musical instrument? What music do you have on repeat at the moment?

Rebecca: Gosh this is so lovely of you to say! Alas I can’t claim to be a musician. I hammered away on the piano as a child and can mimic several convincing barn animal noises… Maybe I could have a go at being a heavy metal singer, but realistically that’s because my friends are just staggeringly supportive at karaoke. 

I’m charmed by the sounds of words, which I guess is why I like lush OTT poetry – where it’s permissible to load up the adjectives just because they’re delicious, and make subtle music in that way. I truly was trying to think of Meat Lovers as a concept album, actually, with a Side A and Side B, and poems that can be heard alone but build something bigger when they’re experienced in order.

Lately I’m revving songs about sad cowboys and/or the devil. I love a broody lyric. Orville Peck, Nadine Shah, The Veils, Warren Zevon, Julia Jacklin, that sort of thing. The song I was trying to keep up with while running today was Sinnerman (Nina Simone), and the song I’m looping now to tune out and write this is called I just wanna lie in bed and drink my wine (various artists), which is a mood, and just before that it was Head alone (Julia Jacklin)

you have one job
which is to hold

this disturbingly large moth
battering the woven
basket of your fingers

every instinct whining to
close your fingers and crush it

or open your palms
set the fluttering insect loose
free your hands for other tasks

but this is your job
the having and the holding


from ‘Poem about my heart’

Paula: I also love the way your collection has heart. If I pick up a collection at the moment and it is devoid of heart it feels like a remote unreachable island. Yours mattered to me. What matters to you when you write? Does heart matter?

Rebecca: For these poems, certainly. This book is one big folded stained paper heart, clumsy and earnest. It’s anchored in my foundational love for the land I grew up on, gratitude for the life my parents gave me, and care for the animals we lived with – and also the felt complications in all those things. Then there’re my attempts to write about the frustrations and discoveries, failure and bliss of eros and romance – about which there’s nothing new to say under the sun but when has that ever stopped a poet? To be honest, usually when I write I try not to worry about whether a poem has heart. Something I’m doing as play might well turn into something true, but only if I don’t try too hard! 

In both writing and reading, different modes call to me at different times, from the sentimental to disaffected… Recently I was bowled over by Frank: Sonnets by Dianne Seuss, which is an often devastating book – poems of desperation, poverty, motherhood, addiction – but often dryly funny. Just observing things, reporting without telling a reader what to feel. Her poems often have a sting in the tail that makes my guts churn, like this one. I’m drawn to gutting poems, just as I am doleful music. 

In poems I’m interested in humour and irony and the sardonic, too – how the heartfelt can be reprocessed into more distanced ways of engaging with our feelings. In editing No Other Place to Stand, I was really interested in the poems that did this. The causes, effects, and injustices of climate change, colonialism and capitalism evoke big primary emotions – Fear, Anger, Grief, Hope, Etcetera – so sometimes the only way into these subjects without getting washed away by those feelings can be to approach through slant wit. Those poems have their place in the body of climate writing alongside the activist battle cries, mourning songs, and stirring polemics that they sit with in the book. Sidling away from pure emotion doesn’t imply a lack of care to me, necessarily – the poems are still being written! And the more I learn about the pressures facing our planet and peoples, the less inclined I am to believe there’s any one right way to respond in our heads and hearts. Plus the sentimental can be treacherous too – I was trying to be careful with this in writing my book, not glorifying my nostalgia or delivering undue condemnations, especially in how I speak about aspects of farming life.

it’s not real cottagecore unless you are up to the elbow in it
blindly groping down the blood-slick canal
as another contraction ripples around your knuckles
the cow is lain on her side licking a mud angel

your hand clutching at the calf’s limp hoof
head torch slipping over your brow
as you affix the chain and brace yourself
to pull and pull until an amniotic spill

when the calf’s head breaches unbreathing
still you pull and bring the whole body wetly
into the cold world you drag the whole darkness
drenched newborn around so the mother can lick

caked salts from her motionless baby


from ‘Sparkling bucolic’

Paula: So few women have returned to the farm in their poetry. I am thinking Ruth Dallas and Marty Smith. Ruth had a nostalgic yearning for rural life so wrote farm poems from her Dunedin home to make up for not being there! Marty grew up on a farm and returns to farmland in Horse with Hat. Your return is electrified by edgy realism, razor-edged fantasy, the whole glorious mash of childhood, ‘a rural gothic’. What pulled you back?

Rebecca: Can any of us grow out of our childhoods? The longer I spend away from the farm the more strongly I feel how that land, that life, has shaped me. I have loads of long-winded thoughts about how we live and work and eat and consume and produce on these colonised islands. In my poems it was important for me to write critically and lovingly about these things – to challenge the assumptions I absorbed about the ordinary/natural state of the world as a child, while also celebrating the gifts of my upbringing, the cruelly beautiful lessons and earthing sensory experiences and many ways of relating to other animals. I carry all this with me –I am never without it. I’m glad you registered that not all the book is straight reporting on my life though – there’s plenty of fantasy and fiction in there. Let poets tell lies! 

I think often about Ruth Dallas’ Milking Before Dawn. And Marty’s book made an enormous impression on me – she really encouraged me not to worry too much about being macabre! Rural gothic, as you say, is where I’m most at home. And I was so blessed to journey ‘home’ to the farm through these poems, as well as honour previous selves formed in that place – the girl encountering a mythical panther, the adolescent queen of weed-killers, the teen rapt in agonies finding reasons to fight in the rampant gorse in the riverbed… And I hope some of this work rings true for other queer rural kids, farmhands with a taste for verse, or anyone else seeking poems with bloody dirt still fresh under their fingernails.

Paula: When I first held a copy of my debut collection I burst into tears. There was an overwhelming gap between the poetry in my head and the object I held. I can’t explain it. Something to do with a physical thing and a mental thing. Your collection has just been launched into the world – in a venue with friends and family! How is the book’s arrival for you?

Rebecca: Agh, the tears! The gap between the final proof PDF being sent off to print and the arrival of the first book was hardest for me. I’m always spelunking new depths in the elaborate limestone cave system of my self-doubt (though thankfully have enough robust arrogance to keep making art regardless). Downing tools was difficult because I knew that from here on, the book wouldn’t get any better. I wanted this book to have a wholeness between the art and writing and fussed over it for aaaaages. But at some point the endless incrementally different PDFs became a blur, so it was time to end my meddling. The months away were tough because it was when the book was most abstracted from me, just some soulless files in the ether that I couldn’t ever touch again.

But then receiving that first copy of the book was magic. Tearing into the courier package with my teeth in the work elevator to find this actual book, its own thing, with its own weight and colour and scent, an actual living object in the world freed of my brain and screens… My favourite part of the physical book is the inner covers, with a meaty marbling that I learned to do on a version of Photoshop Elements so ancient that I actually own the program (rather than subscribing annually to “creative cloud”, ew). The pinkness peeps out when the book is read, and radiates onto the creamy paper of the pages. I loved the book so much from first sight, and am so grateful to everyone at AUP for helping manifest it. And the urge to tinker further has ceased. I accept it for what it is, now – a polaroid snippet of part of my work. I no longer worry that it doesn’t contain everything I could ever put on the page, or that the gap between the work preserved in the book and the work I’m presently more interested in making will only get wider. 

Launching with Chris was a dream come true. I admire his work so much, and it’s inspiring to see how his poetic interests have developed from book to book. As fellow Show Ponies, we both love the energy of a real crowd, especially in a space like Meow. We were on the same buzz about wanting to share a live event with our loved ones and communities. There’s something so special about Wellington’s poetry scene – the city is big enough for stuff to happen, but small enough to hold a close-knit community. I’m shriekingly aware that we are not post-pandemic and there was still risk looming over the event (not least cos we were both meant to fly to the Brisbane Writers’ Festival a few days later), but I’m glad we were able to gather, for my dearest mum and Razz to travel there, for Chris and I to thrive on costumes and theatrics, to demand that a handful of people offered us some obligatory praise, and, most importantly, to perform our dramatic recital of Dragula by Rob Zombie.

Rebecca Hawkes grew up on a sheep and beef farm near Methven and now maintains a tenuous work/work balance in Wellington city. With poems widely published in Aotearoa journals, Rebecca’s debut chapbook ‘Softcore coldsores’ was published in AUP New Poets 5 for the reignition of the series in 2019. Meat Lovers is her first full-length collection. Rebecca is an editor for literary journal Sweet Mammalian and the climate change poetry anthology No Other Place to Stand (Auckland University Press, forthcoming)She is a founding member of popstar poets’ performance posse Show Ponies and haphazard coordinator of the Pegasus Books poetry reading series.

Rebecca Hawkes website

Auckland University Press page

Ash Davida Jane reviews Meat Lovers on Nine to Noon

Paula Green review at Kete Books

Poetry Shelf conversation: Sarah Scott on paintings and poetry



Heapmeal. Piecemeal. Leafmeal. We all fall
into our chairs like collapsed parachutes. Each of us is known
to have been ground down. Each of us has wished
for a meal like this. Wholemeal. With some warmth
in the talk or in herself. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting
of the last supper, the person beside you sprouts
nasturtium-green, seems attached to a branch – Rameal.
On this very fertile ground, another person has found the sea
is internal – watermeal – and seems draped in an only slightly
tousled world. But you are inside the
flesh of a pomegranate. Bloodmeal. Ravishmeal. Each of us lean
into the foreground of the other – Limbmeal
by Limbmeal – to see the source of sun is a person.
So much ground, from which everything can rise.

Sarah Scott

Paula: I am captivated by your poetry. The three poems included here, with their attachments to particular paintings, mesmerise on so many levels. Are they part of a wider project? What prompted it?

Sarah: My background is in art history and curating and I’ve always drawn and painted. I thought it might be interesting to have those things cross-pollinate with my creative work in poetry, and now I would love to see this to grow into a larger project. Writing poetry about art feels like a rich vein to me; there’s an endless supply of material, and there is something that happens between the artist/artwork and writer/poem, like a double shot of creativity.

I woke up from a dream one night and wrote down the name Fiona Hall. She’s an Australian artist whose work I must have come across and it had lodged in my subconscious. I sought out her work and I love her experimental, beautiful depictions of the natural world. My poem Amazonical was prompted by looking at a still of the video Amazonical from her exhibition Force Field.

In Leaven I looked at Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco The Last Supper – it was Easter or almost, when I wrote it, so ideas around ascension just floated up into the poem. My poem House by the Railroad, which I talk more about below, responds to Edward Hopper’s haunting painting of the same name.


maybe we go for our usual walk
& the way you talk
draws out one kid-soft living example:

maybe the sky looks
                        like a giant waterlily
except heavier, its Victorian under-structure
Built for Dusk

maybe mountains of babies were placed on its leaves
in a crystal pavilion in the 1830’s
a shoot to show what else there could be

in the universe more powerful than
when you touch gingerly &

my mouth is another opening flower
bruised as the natural world


Sarah Scott

Paula: I think we need a new word to describe the bridge between poem and artwork. Not exactly translation, transcendence, conversation, road trip.

Sarah: Yes, that’s so true! There’s the potential to speak in a slightly different language and transcend your usual ways of thinking. Anne Carson writes somewhere about the desire to find ways to stand back from yourself, in order to get closer in, and I think the words ekphrasis (poetry about art) and ekstasis (to stand outside of oneself, as in awe) seem curiously close, like they are knit together somewhere deep in the language. Ekphrasis poetry also feels collaborative, like a conversation – sparks from the art overbrim into your own creative process, taking you in unexpected directions.

Paula: What draws you to a painting?

Sarah: If an image draws me down into something deeper, I run with it. Fiona Hall’s video Amazonical immediately threw a confetti of ideas over me. It’s surreal, slant and beautiful. In the video-still I base my poem on, the image of a giant waterlily is overlaid on a landscape, in dusky, bruised colours, making me think about the vulnerability and exhaustion of the natural world, which seems critical right now. I also love the title, and sometimes it’s the title (like with poetry) that draws me in.

Paula: I love how your poems are a sweet trinity of sound, image and surprise. What is important when you write a poem?

Sarah: Sound is so important to me. The more mysterious grooves of prayer and song rather than ordinary speech resonate for me, and I like to let language lead. I’ve also realised that I think through images – they open up vistas through which to talk about other things. The process of writing is like travelling through those doors, toward someplace you didn’t know you were going, but hopefully, you’re happy you did.

House by the Railroad
for Phyllis

If a house could be you, in your pale blue swimsuit.
If you’d mouthed this house like gum.
If the letterbox still flapped open, making the sound
of one afternoon on the ocean.
If the railroad tracks carried blood
back to the plains of your heart.
If this house could make light of its own dark.
If I scalloped some sky from a Botticelli.
If we washed all the small talk off.
If your weatherboards were touched soft
by grass. If I could return here
on a recommissioned train. If we were on the rust
-filled platform again, me helping you down
and down, into the open sea.

Sarah Scott

Paula: Does autobiography enter the mesh?

Sarah: I feel like this process allows me to go down the tracks of my own life and thought without realising. Hopper’s painting House by the Railroad for instance, felt strangely comforting to me, even though it is a painting that speaks of absence, and my poem became a love letter to my late grandmother who I was very close to.

Paula: Tell me about the Poetry Lightbox Series you curate in Te Whanganui-a-Tara.

Sarah: The lightbox project has given me the opportunity to showcase the work of other poets in a space usually reserved for visual art. People encounter the lightbox on their commute to work or walking up Cuba Street, and I like that these might be people that may not seek poetry out, but there it is, in such an unexpected place. It’s a joyful project to me – creating room for quiet and beauty in the busy urban environment, and I’m hugely grateful to the poets who have contributed their amazing work for it.

Paula: Do you read much poetry? Can you share a couple of books that have left a mark on you recently?

Sarah: I’m smitten by the work of American poet Mary Szybist, whose collection Incarnadine refracts and reflects on depictions of the Virgin Mary from different perspectives. Her imagery is startling, and I can’t recommend her work highly enough. A friend in the States put me onto the ‘pastoral surrealism’ of James Wright. Reading Wright’s collected poems, I’ve had to pause quite often just to take it in – it’s quietly ecstatic – an amazing and rare reading experience.

Sarah Scott’s poetry has appeared in LandfallTurbine |Kapohau and Fresh Ink. She currently curates the Poetry Lightbox Series in Te Whanganui-a-Tara where she lives with her partner and two sons. 

Poetry Shelf conversations: Bernadette Hall

Like thumbprints, the moulding of the mountains
made by light and shade, the long spine
like folded paper, the crane of peace perhaps
but we are a long long way from that.

from ‘Tears and Wounds’ in The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2007)

Some poets you carry with you. Every new book is a significant arrival. The poetry of Bernadette Hall has been like that for me. Her writing touches so many levels, from heart to ear to eye to cheek. Her writing relishes warmth, connection, observation, experience. Living. Reading. Questioning. Ideas. As I travelled through Bernadette’s books again, looking for poem extracts to add to our conversation, I realised what a tough job I had set myself. I wanted to quote everything.

Needing a word
for the little jumps
on the surface of things

(that certain
blurring of the edges
like the sea’s turning back
or the gulls hitched up on elastic)

I’m still hanging around

My sleeves ripple like flags

from ‘the persistent levitator’ in The Persistent Levitator (VUP, 1994)

Paula: Thank you so much for agreeing to an email conversation with me. I have been fan of your poetry for a long time, so this feels like a much needed outing. I have no idea how it will unfold but I am picturing the two of us sitting down on the beach watching the waves roll in as we talk about books and poetry, about reading and writing. With a flask of tea. The sky is blue and the sun is shining but there’s a nip in the air because, after all, it is autumn.

It is so long since we have seen each other, such corrugated and challenging times for everyone. Books and writing have been an essential part of my day. Have you read anything, any genre, in the past year that has lifted you? Anchored you? Taken you apart and reassembled you?

Bernadette: A gorgeous afternoon here today, dear Paula. A slight tremor in the leaves of the trees that crowd around my little writing room. I like being backed into a small, dimmed space like this. As if I’m underground. I’ve spent much of the last few weeks way up on a high ladder, pruning dead wood out of olive and plum trees and a peach. And a hedge which I think is called taupata. I’m much in love with all this, being way up there in the air. My body knowing what it has to do. Shifting, balancing, rebalancing. No thinking. No talking. No words.

And then of course I do come back. To this place. To the big white desk. To the walls that are covered with books and paintings. The door open to the gravel path that goes one way to the front of the cottage and the other way to the street. And the world is full of suffering and outrage and there are words, words, words, and there are screams and there’s weeping and there’s the ripping shrieks of missiles.  And all the while the glaciers are melting. I’m not writing much at the moment. I haven’t got words for it. But I am reading. Voraciously, hungrily, reading and rereading. Mostly non-fiction. Some fiction. Not so much poetry. For poetry hurts. And I can’t say why.

Paula: To picture you pruning and then in your writing space is a welcome image in my head. I agonised over whether to reboot my blogs in 2022, but it came down to a love of words, books and writing connections. I have been thinking about the poets who have mattered so much to me since my debut collection in 1997. The way the lines of certain poets sung to me: This is what poetry can do. Were there poets important to you in your poetry beginnings?

Bernadette: I am so grateful to you, dear Paula, as a poetry connector. Every time you set me a little task, I feel the jolt of a writing impulse and am grateful. In the late 1970’s, not long after the birth of my third child, I joined a writing group run by John Dickson in Dunedin. That’s where I met the Americans, most memorably, John Berryman:

My daughter’s heavier. Light leaves are flying.
Everywhere in enormous numbers turkeys will be dying 
and other birds, all their wings.

from ‘Dream Song 385’

So, the scene is Thanksgiving. And the little child recurs. What resonates with me in Berryman’s work is not the whole but fleeting lines like these. The final stanza in this particular poem is one I go back to again and again. It reassures me that poetry is my place.

My house is made of wood and it’s made well,
unlike us. My house is older than Henry;
that’s fairly old.
If there were a middle       ground between things and the soul
or if the sky resembled more the sea,
I wouldn’t have to scold
                                             my heavy daughter.

When it comes to New Zealand poetry, my hand reaches time and time again to DIA by Michele Leggott (AUP, 1994), where the unsayable is said and gorgeously:

the heart in its cage stands up
desiring fine instruments     what shall we play?
laughter startles the sublime lyric c’est
le pays du desire
and I its best gesture
wake in tears

from ‘CIRCLE’ in DIA (AUP, 1994)

I’m currently reading, and re-reading as I go because it’s difficult, a substantial piece of non-fiction, On Equilibrium by John Ralston Saul, published in 2001. When it comes to imagination, he describes it as ‘a rhythm of the body.’ So it’s something that’s there, ‘in our intellect, our perception, our body as a whole, our relationship to others, to what we create, to rooms, to atmospheres.’  What do you reckon? Thrilling, eh?

Paula: I love that! Imagination as a body rhythm. This week, I posted a review of Janet Charman’s fabulous new collection, The Pistils, and found myself navigating its ideas, heart and physicality through rhythm. I find both head and heart reactions, body reactions to the world, to a poem. Body music. You got me thinking how a poem is a set of rooms and corridors, atmospheres and relationships. How essential rhythm is as you write (and read).

I can remember analysing one of your poems (‘Rathcoola rain’) at Hagley Institute with a group of students. In your company! I opened the music of the poem as a way of walking through its ‘rooms and corridors, its atmospheres and relationships’. Its ideas, its physical reach. Your poems have always struck me in this way. What was important to you when you were writing poems at that time?

The rain is like mice scrabbling in the ceiling.
It’s like the crackling of plastic,
the first licking of flames in a handful of wood shavings,
the complicit turning of pages in hundreds of Mass books

It is slight and light and insistent.

from ‘Rathcoola rain’ from The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2009)

Bernadette: Survival! I needed an ‘island’ where I could just be. A secret place where words which I didn’t know were inside me might find their way out. A place, I guess, of instinct and intuition. A private, solitary space. For truth-telling. As far as I could feel it.  

Paula: I think it’s how I work. A secret island where I’ve no idea what paths I will track and what will fall upon the notebook page. Especially now when writing is a survival aide. Are you able to write at the moment?

Bernadette: More prose than poetry at the moment. Bits and pieces. Though there is one new one, a love poem in precarious times.

On adding up the loves of our lives  

When I walked into the room
my garden walked in with me.

When he walked into the room
his cat walked in with him.

I heard them whispering in the night.

‘Don’t worry, little man,’ I heard him say.
‘I’m sure the sea-wall will hold.’


Paula: Ah so lovely! I am writing both poetry and prose but not sure how I feel about publication. Do I want or need this? I am on my third draft of a children’s novel and love having this place of retreat. I also write a tiny poem each day to go with my Wordle result. It is automatic writing that taps into an autobiography of the everyday, found poetry, surreal tracks, the imagined, the felt. What draws you to prose? A patchwork quilt of prose?

Bernadette: Or a rag-bag! Prose is often something I’ve been invited to do. It’s like a job that makes sense before I begin. I think the poems come from a deeper, more unpredictable place. Or rather, the ordinary, lived experiences that are at the base of a poem shift of their own accord into a darker, less rationally controlled space. It doesn’t always happen, of course. So you learn to be patient, don’t you. You sort of despair yet over the years you begin to understand that that emptiness is actually part of the process. ‘You go back and back to the same leaping off place.’ When a poem fills itself up, you feel amazed and jubilant. I don’t write all the time. I come and go. I’m a Sagittarian, I have enthusiasms.

Tell me about your love of children. The way you have celebrated their poetry in beautiful books. Year after year you have exerted yourself encouraging, teaching, travelling round the country, all for the sake of young writers. In the same way, your Poetry Shelf has been essential and much loved as a connector and an instigator nation-wide for years. How did you find the time? Could you share with us one of your tiny poems and a children’s poem?

A man with two shopping bags
and a dog on the lead
makes it down the street

A kererū sleeps
on the telephone wire
at the top of our long drive

A tiger reads War and Peace 
to a family of little giraffes
under our carpet

Paula Green, April 24 (WORDLE poem)

The Glass Door

Open the glass door
and the whole world changes

after the splatter splatter rain
and the tiger tiger wind
and the pepper pepper hail
and the nose biting cold

the grounds steams like little dumplings
the birds sing like my warbling aunt
the cat rolls over on her tummy
and I hide in the shiny grass.

from Groovy Fish and other poems (Scholastic, 2019)

Paula: I have always loved writing for children. Walk into a classroom and poetry can liberate the most reluctant writer through word play. You don’t need rules or models. Imagination sets sail. The real world counts. It’s fun but you also navigate important ideas such as friendship, difference, what we want and need in the world. The joy of engaging with children, as they make poems matter, is beyond words.

 And yes, poetry comes out of a deep unpredictable place. So private, so intimate, so vulnerable. It’s an energy source. It fits into little and larger pockets of time.

I have connected with your writing, but also in the way you have mentored younger writers. How they hold you in such deserved esteem. Did your teaching/mentoring and writing feed each other? How did you find the time? I am thinking poetry time finds us!

Under Erebus

A woman is standing under Erebus
She has wrapped all her gifts around her,
including caritas.

A bulky mammal able to feed her young.

See the red flag with its purple shadow,
the flagged road curving towards tomorrow.

There is shelter here, off to the right,
a bunch of metal rods and a cloth.

You wonder if it’s going to be enough.

Bernadette Hall, from The Ponies (VUP, 2007)

Bernadette: You’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to the dual highway of exhilaration when that liberation of words happens between like minds. So often it’s been blissful, talking up a storm, one on one, with someone who’s on the track, as it were. In love with language, compelled to make something out of that desire. Gifted yet unsure. Open, honest, trusting. It’s a huge honour to be trusted in that way. By someone giving some part of themselves away. So the creative intimacy, the vulnerability you refer to is somehow shared. Hopefully along with laughter. And cake and good coffee!

Do you remember the little poem I sent you for your birthday book a few years ago? It’s so slight and mysterious. Yet somehow it seems to pull together all I want to say about writing poetry. Maybe the very word emporium is along the lines of Janet Frame’s Mirror City. And our job is to entrust ourselves to it. Daniella Bagozzi, a fabulous Christchurch teacher, translated the little poem into Italian for you. That’s another string to your bow, isn’t it. That lovely operatic language. 

On entering the emporium

I understand now why the children fuss and stir
looking for some light relief.

Even a little bird will do, hopping oddly along a bench.

Paula: Well that was a special arrival – turning my laptop on when I turned 60 and falling upon a suite of poems as a birthday gift. Helen Rickerby made it into a beautiful book. These gestures seem even more important now.

And the idea of an emporium hooks. Michele Leggott used it on the flap of Mirabile Dictu (Auckland University Press, 2009): ‘If the effect is a kind of poetic emporium I would be very pleased, having learned that the word reached us through the Greek emporos, traveller or merchant, from poros, a journey, a prosperity, passing from one thing to another.’

Italian! We both spent time in another language. I enrolled at the University of Auckland for one year, but I loved Italian so much, I kept going back until there were no more degrees left. It was the beauty of the language, it was stepping into a wondrous literature from the Renaissance through to contemporary times. Above all, it was admiration for what the women were doing with pens and paintbrushes across the centuries. It has shaped me as a poet, an anthologist and a blogger!

Bernadette: Many moons ago, dear Paula, you asked me what I’d found enthralling in my recent reading. We’ve covered quite a lot of ground between then and now. And somehow you took me back in time. I’m thinking how lucky I was to spend four years within the Classics haven at Otago University, starting in 1964. The poet Iain Lonie was my tutor. Hearing him and Judith read their poems in a performance was breath-taking. Having Prof. Kenneth Quinn share with a couple of us the manuscript of his emerging translation of the lyrics of Catullus was challenging, as people say today. He asked for our opinions, this English phrase or word or another, and he repeated over and over that we had to be ‘sensitive’ to language.  He clearly thought we weren’t. It certainly got me thinking. Vincent’s ‘The Dark is Light Enough’, his brilliant portrait of Ralph Hotere, published in 2020, fills up so many gaps for me. I gobbled it up eagerly, twice through. So this is what was going on under my nose in Dunedin at that time. I played cello in the uni. orchestra conducted by Bill Southgate. I went to plays at the Globe Theatre. But I was shy, my sphere sequestered. I didn’t get to know the movers and shakers.

A month ago I was enthralled by Jane Campion’s film, The Power of the Dog.  Enthralled even more when I went on to read Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel republished in 2001 with an afterword by Annie Proux. My edition dated 2021. Thank goodness I entered the story this way, film then text with room for so much richness and complexity fully realised on the page.

Bernadette: I have two other current enthralments. Conversātiō – in the company of bees by Anne Noble with Zara Stanhope and Anna Brown (Massey University Press, 2021). It’s exquisite, a life-changer, rich in language and in image. It’s majorly desirable, it reignites in me a passion for making, poetry along with my beloved bee-garden.

You have linked my writing with music, Paula. I’m not conscious of that myself, but here’s a quotation from Zara’s essay: ‘ Music is a language of its own that touches nerves and ignites our sensory imaginary. Sound is felt.’  And I’m thinking ah yes, the sound of words. But what about ideas, what are the words saying?

Paula: Absolutely! Music leads to ideas, feeling, the physical world, sensations. Maybe music enhances the other effects and arrivals in a poem. I too loved Anne’s book. So beautifully crafted at the level of image, word and book production.

Bernadette: And finally there’s The Lobster’s Tale, text by Chris Price and photos by Bruce Foster (Massey University Press, 2021). I’ve just got my hands on it. I’ve not read it yet, just dipped in a little, stroked the paper, turned the beautiful pages. ‘Look to the life that goes on in your blind spot, the light that will eat you alive. Ahead remains a narrowing gap no creature can thread solo, by exercise of will or control, but only in collaboration: you might choose to carry each other as the kōura in berry carries eggs below her tail…..’ Already I know that this is something I need, it’s come at the perfect time, it will fill me up. And I am really grateful.


Slowly the place takes shape. We are homeless
and dissolving in the silky water-laden air.
The dream was of my mouth full of crushed
glass, quite different from that other one
of stealing envelopes and being pursued by a monkey,
by a donkey, by a monkeydonkey and to be honest,
who cares. I met Joanna at 6.00pm
and we went to see SMOKE. Now that’s a film
and a half. My stars say you must abandon
as if to have more than one word
in your mouth at a time is a vice. ‘You have to make
a choice,’ says the gum tree, pushing itself
up out of the lumpy asphalted playground.
‘Otherwise there’s nothing but bird noise in the aviary.’


Bernadette Hall, from ‘Fancy Dancing’, in Fancy Dancing (VUP, 2020)

Bernadette Hall is Otago born and bred. She gained an MA in Latin at Otago University She taught at high schools in Dunedin and Christchurch, and for the last eighteen years has lived in a renovated bach at Amberley Beach in the Hurunui, North Canterbury, where she has built up a beautiful garden. In 2008 Bernadette co-founded the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch. She was involved with the Institute as a tutor, a supervisor, and eventually the Patron, retiring from that role a couple of years ago. She has written eleven collections of poetry, including Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004 – 2020 (VUP). She edited Like Love Poems (VUP), a gorgeous edition of poems by Joanna Margaret Paul and brought the poetry of Lorna Staveley Anker our attention in The Judas Tree (CUP). In 2015 she collaborated with Robyn Webster on Matakaea, Shag Point, an art /text installation exhibited at the Ashburton Art Gallery. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in poetry (2015) and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in Aotearoa New Zealand (2017).

Te Herenga Waka University Press page
Poetry Shelf review: Fancy Dancing

Poetry Shelf conversation: Vaughan Rapatahana

Vaughan Rapatahana, Te Ātiawa, commutes between Aotearoa New Zealand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. He writes across genres, in both te reo Māori and English, and his work has been translated into multiple languages. He has published eight poetry collections and has a PhD from the University of Auckland (a thesis on Colin Wilson). His collection Atonement was nominated for a National Book Award in Philippines (2016). He was awarded the inaugural Proverse Prize in 2016. He appeared at Poetry International Festival at London’s Southbank (2019) and at Medellin Poetry Festival Poetry (2021).

Vaughan reads at Medellin Poetry Festival Colombia

Paula: In 2022 I am running a series of email conversations with poets whose work has engaged me, often over a period of time. In these jagged and uncertain days, it is a welcome chance to talk books, writing, reading, hearts and minds. And in our case, an opportunity to discuss your two new books (ināianei/now, cyberwit, 2021; mō taku tama, Kilmog Press, 2021). Has reading offered uplift, solace, diversion? Have certain books really stuck?

Vaughan: Tēnā koe mō tēnei Paula. Reading has certainly offered ‘busyness’, if there is such a word. I am fortunate to be involved in several projects right now and am doing a lot of reading. Of poetry, of short stories, flash fiction, creative non-fiction in both my main languages – te reo Māori rāua ko te reo Ingarihi. I have been very aware that ngā wāhine Māori especially are right at the forefront of current Aotearoa New Zealand writing. And I am impressed. Very impressed. Several collections have recently been published. Tupuranga Journal, Kei te Pai Journal, Saltwater Love Journal, Te Whē, Awa Wāhine, Atua Wāhine have all impressed me greatly, while I know that Cassandra Barnett has a new collection (which I have read) and Anahera Gildea and Alice Te Punga Sommerville also have collections out this year. And Briar Wood of course. I am also looking forward to Robert Sullivan’s new poetry collection, which I have just received. And Michael Steven’s too, eh. Then essa may ranapiri will impress us all with their own new set! Wow, this country has a mighty rich vein of poets.

Reading becomes religion.

Paula: If you made a roadmap of your own poetry writing, are there any significant presences, guides, lamps that you would mark?

Vaughan: To be honest, I did not get into poetry writing until about 2007, when I started to get into the craft more. I was well into my fifties. I do recall getting good advice from my old schoolmate, David Eggleton, and from James Norcliffe – we first met in Brunei Darussalam last century – about the poems I was learning to write back then.

I had always been very aware of Sam Hunt, as a  poet, and had a few dealings with him over the years before I got serious about writing poetry myself. To a degree he and James K Baxter had kept poetry in the public eye for a long period. Two distinctive Cancerians, eh. To digress, I remember drinking at the Kiwi Hotel with Baxter. Way back when. Hone Tūwhare was also a favourite of mine. And Jacquie Sturm became one, when I ‘discovered’ her work. There are a couple of her poems that really impressed and – probably – motivate the ‘political’ poetry I often find myself writing. And Hinewirangi too. I knew of her Moana Press collections and got what she was saying. As I noted earlier I am also very impressed by the wave of wāhine Māori poets right now. I won’t name more names as there are several, but I am sure you will see a lot of their work over the next few years.

But, on reflection, you know, the poet who really drove me, from waaaaay back when I never wrote poems, was Sylvia Plath. Too many pained shared echoes for me and I can always read some of her lines and be instantaneously moved.

ināianei/now, cyberwit, 2021 and mō taku tama, Kilmog Press, 2021

Paula: I think, among many things, I am drawn to your poetry because of the strong presence of te reo Māori. Yes it is music that adds to the poems, but it is also individual words that are like gold beacons on a musical staff – maunga, kōrero, manaaki whenua, manaaki tāngata, whakarongo. They take me back to growing up in Tai Tokerau. It is like being welcomed onto the marae that is poetry. What does it mean for you?

Vaughan: E tuhituhi ana ahau ki tāku reo tuatahi ināianei, i te reo Māori. Nā te aha? Nā te mea e pīrangi ana ahau kia whakapuaki whakatepe ngā mea katoa i tāku hinengaro, i tāku mānawa, i tāku wairua. Kāore e taea e au te tino whakapuaki ahau i tētahi atu reo. 

[I now write in my first language, the Māori language. Why? Because I want to fully express everything in my mind, in my heart, in my soul.

I cannot express myself fully in another language.]  

I think that the sentences above express why I now write a good deal of the time in te reo Māori. While at the same time utilising te reo Ingarihi [English] to twist back upon itself as a sometime circumlocutive, certainly dominating, even duplicitous tongue – or at least its fiscally motivated agents!

Paula: Thank you. Your two new collections, ināiane/now (2021) and mō taku tama (2021) both pulse with vital heart. Especially because you bring a deep-seated pain to the surface of your writing: the tragic loss of your son. The second collection gathers poems you have written to and for him since his death. The first includes some. At times I feel like a trespasser but, at other times, I am reminded why poetry matters to me. A poem can draw me deep into human experience and affect how I live and write my own life. This is what your poetry does. I am reminded of the gift of reading Iona Winter’s Gaps in the Light, who also tragically lost her son. mō taku tama is such a loving tribute and so beautifully crafted by Kilmog Press. The poetry says your grief. How was it, choosing to write this? Putting it out in the world?

Vaughan: Tēnā koe mō tēnei pātai. A good question.

I write in the introduction to mō taku tama (for my son) that composing poetry about him, his far too early demise, and my resultant various mixed feelings about this, keeps him alive – at least for me. In the end that collection, despite the sorrow imbued across the pages, is a celebration.

For Blake was a great guy and I miss him, even although I do often sense his presence. I want others to share not so much my grief , but my love for a wonderful son.

And I guess that I will at times write more poems which relate to him.

Thank you to Dean at Kilmog Press too. He mahi tino pai tēnei.

talking to my son in a funeral home
[tiwhatiwha pō tiwhatiwha te ao:
gloom and sorrow prevail, night and day]

I spoke more authentically
to you
during those thirty
estiolated minutes
than I ever did
when you were alive.

the stark room,
shaped more like a coffin
than what you lay in
quite composed,
unmoved by
my ascesis of angst,
my agenda of guilt.

the wooden floor
an eavesdropper
bouncing back a farrago
of belated apologies,
an echolation
of mea culpa.

those faded walls,
the fake flowers in a neutral vase
and the box of tissues
supplicating for the tears
I could no longer summon
during that one-sided
confession to myself.


Paula: I was thinking about the way you bring knitting into a couple of poems. I especially love ‘knitting a poem’ (read here). What we knit into poetry and ‘what exists beyond it’, and took me back to Blake. I have an uncertain year ahead and your beautiful two books made me hold my daughters closer. What do you think of the idea of poetry to keep us warm? Of poetry that is craft and heart gift? Or a different thought, a net even?

Vaughan: Yes, I guess we – as poets anywhere – are knitting and weaving and sewing together a final tapestry of sorts. It could be a long shawl to warm us up, to keep us snug. It could be some showy patterned piece to display our cleverness. It could be a blanket to stir up a fiery blaze within us – perhaps about an injustice. Equally it could be a fire retardant blanket created to quell raging conflagrations also within us. 

I think many of my own poems have elements of these. In the end though, I guess I do like to knit poetry into a coverall that – although it may be angry and sad and clever-dick at times – shares emotions, stirs up thinking, yet can comfort and console even in times of doubt and disaster. After all, eh – 

ko taku mahi
kia tuhituhi te tika
kia wewete ngā roimata
mō katoa ō tātou ki te tangi.
nō te mea,
ki muri ngā roimata anake tātou kia kata.

[it is my task
to write the truth
to release the tears
for all of us to cry.
only after the tears
can we laugh.]

Paula: Oh I love that riff on knitting and poetry, that ends with ‘coverall’! Did any poems surprise you when they reached the page? Were there some poems where you felt the stars aligned?

Vaughan: Yes, sometimes – but not often – a poem will arrive, if not ‘fully formed ‘at least well on the way. This usually happens when I am emotionally connected and the emotions have been brewing for some time. The stars aligned for example when I wrote ‘to my wife overseas during lockdown’ and ‘sixteen years’ (both in ināianei/now)I was surprised by the strength of my own feelings and the words just tumbled tightly onto the pages. Almost in perfect alignment.

Other poems are a travail. I can spend a lot of time and make several return trips to a poem before I am content with it. Especially if there is historical research associated with the kaupapa.

And then there are poems which never get completed. Despite many revisits. I guess that they just do not want to be written. Yet, anyway.

Paula: I sometimes think this is how it is as reader too. Sometimes the stars align, you cross the bridge and you are in the poem, and it is utterly wonderful. At other times you cannot sight the bridge and it is travail. But then the next day, the stars do align and you find your way into the poem.

Your poems are personal, but there is also a strong political spine. It seems to be a growing trend in Aotearoa. I welcome this. How important is this presence in your poetry? How does it connect with the poetics? How to write political poetry is wide open!

Vaughan: I don’t consciously write ‘political’ poems. Not in the sense of mainstream party political discourse.

However, when I feel, see, research injustice, whether contemporary or historical I write poetry that depicts the injustice and calls for recompense, recognition, realisation. In this way the poems are personal too. And so, important.

In the end, then, I write poetry from inside, and bugger the (political) ramifications.

Paula: Yes! The political is most definitely personal. You have produced a number of excellent teaching resources (including Poetry in Multicultural Oceania 1-3, Exploring Multicultural Poetry, Te Whakaako Toikupu: Teaching Poetry, Essential Resources) that open up poetry bridges for secondary school students. What prompted you to do this? And what are your aims?

Vaughan: You know – or maybe you don’t! – I was never any ‘good’ at poetry when I was at school.

I only started to ‘get’ it much later when I was overseas teaching English as a foreign language and I needed to somehow simplify the ordeal of comprehending how a poem was structured and only then any comprehension of what it might be ‘all about’ came through.

So all of these poetry teaching resources, commencing in Brunei Darussalam last century and carrying through Hong Kong SAR, to Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond nowadays, are designed to assist an EFL/ESL/poetry lost student – whether adult or at school somewhere – to open the poetry car door, start the engine, and then career down the highway of comprehension, switching gears up to appreciation and then writing their own.  Not an automatic this vehicle: you got to work on the gears a bit, eh.

More than this, I want multiculturalism presented as part of the entire package. This country is increasingly multicultural and I am fortunate to have many international poetry contacts to draw on when sourcing material. It is also why I produce bilingual resources, i roto i te reo Māori rāua ko te reo  Ingarihi. Such as Te Whakaako Toikupu.

There you go, then. These resources started off to help me work out poetry was ‘all about’ and then grew well beyond.

Paula: Such important resources. I have been wondering about our own personal poetry resources, the poems we have written over time. The poems that stick, whether sweet or sharp. I sometimes wonder: how did I write that? Can you share one of your poems that has stood out for you, for whatever reason?

And thank you Vaughan, for this warm and generous poem kōrero.

Vaughan: Sure, here is a poem. Sort of says a lot about what we have been talking about –

he waiata kai

at times,
writing a poem
   is like beans on toast.
easy to apply,
in cheap
economic actions
      & reasonably tasty.
especially if
with melted chyrons;
some cognoscenti cheese.

never anodyne
if served hot,
straight from the pot,
eaten with relish
& digested in
short, sharp bites.

the aftertaste
l  I  n  g  e  r  s
well                                       after               
you’ve scanned
    the can
in  the  cupboard,
  the      lines
on     the     page.

Cyberwit author page

Essential Resources page

Read NZ page

Vaughan reading his poetry on Youtube

NZEPC recordings of Vaughan’s poems