Tag Archives: poetry shelf friday talk

Poetry Shelf Friday talk spot: Nithya Narayanan on getting into poems through Sylvia Plath


It was Sylvia Plath’s poems that really got me into poems.

I managed to get through most of high school without much contact with poetry. Not many people I knew wrote poetry, or read it. While I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home filled with books, poetry wasn’t really something that featured. The only poets I could name were the dead British ones: Keats, Byron, Coleridge, Southey. My grandmother—who was educated in freshly post-colonial India—would often bring them up, and remains shocked that I have gotten three years into an English major without encountering the canon.

In my final year of high school, I sat the Scholarship English exam and decided it would be more interesting (true) and easier (not true) to study poetry for one of the essay questions. I didn’t really have a clue who Sylvia Plath was. I knew only that she was American, and that she had written a novel called The Bell Jar. It’s funny how far you can get into a writer’s work without knowing the first thing about them. I got through about four of Plath’s poems—and meticulously annotated them—before I found out their author had gassed herself in an oven at the age of thirty.

There is a lot of commentary out there that will discuss Plath’s suicide alongside her body of work, as if her death is what makes her legendary. While I find this deeply problematic, I also think that it is difficult to read Plath’s work without an awareness of how she lived and died. She battled clinical depression for most of her life, a condition acutely worsened by the discovery that her husband (poet Ted Hughes) was in love with another woman. In 2003, a film was released on Plath’s life. Quite apart from its terrible casting (with Daniel Craig horribly miscast as Hughes), it reduced the problem of Plath’s life to a love triangle, and chose largely to skirt over the allegations of physical violence that Plath made against Hughes. Plath did not lead an easy life by any standard—a reality that is endlessly reflected in her poems.

I was initially drawn to Plath’s poetry because I thought she was God’s gift to feminism. There’s this wonderful line at the end of ‘Lady Lazarus’: “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air”. I remember reading that at seventeen and trying to interpret the entire poem as some sort of tirade against men. In retrospect I think this was a rather reductive interpretation although, in my defence, the average seventeen-year-old girl will concoct a feminist reading out of almost anything. When I read ‘Lady Lazarus’ today, I read it more as a poem about survival. One of the things I admire most about Plath’s poetry is that it expresses the feeling of not being okay without being dramatic, sentimental, syrupy or self-indulgent. In ‘Tulips’ she contrasts—almost clinically—her body’s determination to live with her mind’s desire to leave: “I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes/Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me”. The poem isn’t about moving on. It’s about endurance; about sitting with your not okay-ness until you are ready to move on.

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they “don’t get” poetry, I wouldn’t have a crippling student loan. The way we’re taught to read in school puts an inordinate amount of emphasis on extrapolation: what something means as opposed to how it makes you feel. While this is helpful in terms of learning how to express an argument, it can be really counterintuitive when it comes to poetry. So much of what makes a poem worth reading is the sensation of it—its texture; its shape; the way it feels on the tongue. I think it’s possible to love a poem without ever really figuring out what it means. I struggled—and still do struggle—with a lot of Plath’s poems. I have never quite managed to figure out ‘Daddy’. I can’t reconcile its various parts, but I still love the way it sounds. Poetry isn’t algebra; you’ll never be able to solve it. Most of the time, the unknowability of the ‘x’ just hits you repeatedly in the face.

The last time I told someone I liked Sylvia Plath, they asked if I was into confessional poetry generally. The term “confessional” is defined as “the poetry of the personal”, and could include anyone from Plath to Anne Sexton to (arguably) Hera Lindsay Bird—yet Plath is a different animal to Sexton who is a completely different animal to Bird. My love for Plath is specific; I struggle to label, generalise, or explain it. I feel a little fraudulent even writing this because, while I love a good poem, poetry doesn’t make up the bulk of my reading material. My passion for Plath is the exception rather than the norm, the way some people claim to avoid dairy but have a special affinity for cheese.

I’m not sure why Plath isn’t taught more widely in New Zealand schools, but I really wish she was. I think we’re perhaps a little scared of poetry that addresses mental health so explicitly. I don’t really have anything to say to this, except to point out that we have the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD. Poetry isn’t a substitute for conversation or treatment—but it might well be a beginning.



Nithya Narayanan was born and bred in Auckland, and is currently studying a BA/LLB conjoint at the University of Auckland. She works on the editorial team for Interesting (the Faculty of Arts’ undergraduate journal) and her essay on Don Mee Choi’s ‘Shitty Kitty’ will be published in this year’s edition. Her poetry has previously appeared in Starling.








































































Poetry Shelf Friday talk spot: Saradha Koirala on Teaching Poetry


In Praise of Teaching Poetry


English teachers are often condemned for ruining poetry for everyone. For making poetry seem harder than it needs to be, flogging a dead verse and generally turning people off it. We’re told we teach too much haiku, too many “dead white guys” or that we look too closely for meaning that’s probably not actually there. If teachers are destroying your love and enjoyment of poetry, then I’m deeply sorry. On behalf of all teachers everywhere, I apologise because I can assure you, the last thing we’re trying to do is ruin something we hold in such high regard.

Most English teachers I know are secret poets anyway, many with our own published work. We have our favourite poems that we like to wheel out on special occasions, we recite lines to each other over mugs of instant coffee in the staffroom, we gasp involuntarily when we see Keats or Plath or Eliot on the latest book list. If anything, we’re trying not to appear too excited, too beguiled by the magic of language and metaphor and that we get to read, pore over, discuss it in our working days.


When I started my current job two years ago, I was sent the outline for the coming term. Every year level in English was studying poetry in some form. We had lovely NZ/Australian writer Lia Hills as our poet in residence doing workshops with the Year 7s and 8s, culminating in a poetry evening for parents. The Year 10s were writing a poetry portfolio based on close studies of the work of Darwish, Neruda, Transtromer, Akhmatova, Yeats, Heaney, Hughes, Bobbi Sykes, Eliot and Dylan Thomas. I added a few more women to the list – Grace Taylor, Grace Nichols, Dorothy Porter, Kate Tempest, Sarah Holland-Batt – and couldn’t believe my luck.

But what of the students? I’ll admit some struggled to write their own poetry. Lia Hills talked a lot about gathering “raw material”, having something to say and crafting words purposefully. Students learnt about the power of line breaks and moving a poem away from a narrative retelling to something more suggestive. Many of them created things you probably wouldn’t have expected from 13 year olds.

The Year 10s completed their portfolios and while some relished the opportunity – compiled their work into titled anthologies and ordered them carefully beneath beautifully designed covers – others squeezed out the bare minimum. But isn’t that just teaching for you? My main concern was, having studied poetry for a term, did they now hate it?

Poetry, like Maths, is often one of those things that young people have a fixed mindset about. They might have encountered something tricky early on and decided it wasn’t for them, but the teacher’s job is to open their minds and to help them find a way back in. It’s therefore almost surprising when I hear students say they love poetry and enjoy reading, studying and writing it. It seems I too have been conditioned into thinking teaching poetry is an up-hill battle.

I’m very lucky to teach at a school that values poetry. We have staff members with PhDs in poetry and translation, we are writers, we are daily readers of poetry. In previous schools, I’ll admit I’ve had to go down the haiku route a bit, but for some young minds having a formula, a rule and something to count out on fingers while writing makes the whole process more manageable, while not detracting from the magic of language.

I started this year again with poetry all round. The Year 7s wrote their own version of Carl Sandburg’s ‘Wilderness’, the Year 8s studied a range of poetry about ‘outsiders’ and created amazing digipoems with stop motion animation and cleverly edited soundtracks using software I had never seen before. My Year 11 Literature class enthusiastically read the work of Gwen Harwood. I didn’t once hear anyone groan at the idea of poetry and can only hope that when they encounter it in another form next year and the year after that their eyes will light up like a newly recruited English teacher looking over her poetry-filled syllabus.



Saradha Koirala’s latest collection of poetry is Photos of the Sky (The Cuba Press, 2018). She teaches English and Literature in Melbourne.


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Poetry Shelf Friday talk: Manon Revuelta on poetry podcasts


In the hopes of offering something immediate to those of us who can’t always afford to buy books, here are some brilliant poetry podcasts.

What a rich resource these have been for me. I listen to them most days. They have led me in so many great directions, and introduced me to some of my favourite poets.

Some days there is so much to read out there that I feel a bit flooded, unsure how to make my way in, trying to read it all at once inattentively. So it’s a total gift to be able to instantly climb inside just one poem—for free!—while on a long bus ride or chopping a pumpkin, and not only that, but a poem that has been carefully chosen, read aloud and discussed.

Writing is never really a solitary quest at all, and I want to hear about food and family and all those supposedly peripheral things. Admittedly it’s not always what you need and can even be dull; sometimes it’s important to reach out of the realm you spend the most time in. But for the most part, I find it so useful to listen to writers talking about their worlds: mundane and extraordinary rituals, who they like to read, why and how they write, their struggles and pleasures and anger and fears. By way of listening, I feel in communion with them.

It’s been difficult to narrow down my favourites as there are many and they just keep coming, but I’ve shared a few particularly memorable episodes below.


1. Commonplace with Rachel Zucker: Conversations with Poets (and Other People) with Rachel Zucker


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A series of intimate and captivating interviews by Rachel Zucker with poets and artists about quotidian objects, experiences or obsessions, Commonplace conversations explore the recipes, advice, lists, anecdotes, quotes, politics, phobias, spiritual practices, and other non-Literary forms of knowledge that are vital to an artist’s life and work.


A few of my highlights:

CA Conrad

Rachel Zucker speaks with poet CA Conrad about their Somatic poetry rituals, their childhood in rural Western Pennsylvania, becoming an avid reader, running away from home, the AIDS epidemic, writing The Book of Frank over an 18 year period, anti-efficiency, marketing research, the 1998 murder of CA’s boyfriend, Earth, using a somatic ritual to cure a pernicious depression, and CA’s recently published book, While Standing In Line for Death. CA Conrad describes their writing process, how to get ahead of one’s internal editor, revision, combating misogyny, animal rights activism, ACT UP, ecological disaster, ecopoetics, the vibrational absence of extinct species being replaced by the din of humanity, white rhinos, Walmart, the end of empire, teaching, the myth of writer’s block, how to write inside the hardest things, roadkill memorials, being alone, and accepting the elements.


Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Rachel Zucker talks with poet, editor, professor Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of three full length collections, most recently Rocket Fantastic, about her new book. They also talk about wanting things, reading in New York, God, prayer, nystagmus (a neurological eye condition), practicing Judaism (but not converting to Judaism) in Los Angeles and in the South, gender identity, gender expression, sexual fantasies, gayness and queerness, butch lesbianism, bros, the symbol she uses in Rocket Fantastic instead of a gendered pronoun and how she reads that symbol, having and recovering from a nervous breakdown and panic attacks, mental health, not seeking out trouble, getting to know the animal you are, envy, jealousy, the granting and prize system in poetry, ambition, unionizing poets, and being honest.


Claudia Rankine

Award winning poet, playwright, professor, editor, essayist, and critic Claudia Rankine speaks with Rachel Zucker about collaboration, poetry’s role in social change, and the investigation of feeling. In this episode, Rankine discusses the importance of ideas put forward by writers such as James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich, the known unknown, the arena of consciousness, being a spectator, willed ignorance, and the illusion of difficulty in poetry.


Conversation between Sheila Heti, Sarah Manguso

Rachel Zucker talks with Sheila Heti and Sarah Manguso about literary friendship, Sarah’s two recent books, Sheila’s manuscript in progress, maternal ambivalence, uncertainty, sacrifice of self, envy, curiosity, being a daughter, attachment and unattachment, shame, the sickening state of wondering whether or not to have children, abandonment, money, the things we cannot choose, choosing intolerable feelings, whiteness, class, the poetics of motherhood, purity, polluted writing, and motherhood as a sexuality category.


  1. New Yorker Poetry Podcast


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New Yorker Poetry is a bit more strictly poetry business than Commonplace. During the episodes, a visiting poet chooses a poem from the New Yorker’s archives to read, as well as one of their own, in between a bit of writerly chit-chat with the host. Best to listen to these in the podcast app rather than the webpage, as if you don’t have a New Yorker subscription access is limited.


A few of my highlights:


Kaveh Akbar reads Ellen Bryant Voigt

Kaveh Akbar joins Kevin Young to read and discuss Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Groundhog” and his own poem “What Use Is Knowing Anything If No One Is Around.” Akbar is the author of the poetry collection “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” as well as the recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and the 2018 Levis Reading Prize.


Nicole Sealey reads Ellen Bass

Nicole Sealey joins Kevin Young to read and discuss Ellen Bass’s poem “Indigo” and her own poem “A Violence.” Sealey is the executive director at the Cave Canem Foundation and the author of the poetry collection “Ordinary Beast.”


Lucie Brock-Broido reads Franz Wright

Lucie Brock-Broido joins Paul Muldoon to discuss Franz Wright’s “Recurring Awakening” and her poem “For a Snow Leopard in October”.

(This was where I first heard Franz Wright’s poetry and it has led me deep into his work. It is a nice segue into the following…)


3. Transom: Two Years with Franz

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This is such a beautifully told and deeply moving story. I treasured listening to Franz’s muttered poems, filled with grace, alongside his curmudgeonly spiels.

“What if you have a story that’s really complicated, and you have 546 tapes to listen to, and you get obsessed and don’t know where to stop? All of those things were true for “Two Years with Franz.” The “Two Years” refers to two years of tapes recorded by the Pulitzer-winning poet Franz Wright before his death, and then, the two years Bianca Giaever spent listening to them. This is a story of art and love, of madness and beauty, of youth and age and death.”


4. Between the Covers


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Between the Covers is hosted by David Naimon, a writer, philosopher and Chinese herbalist with a brilliant mind.  These are long-form in-depth conversations with novelists and essayists as well as poets.

A few of my highlights:


Mary Ruefle

Ursula Le Guin (This is SO good – the best bit awaits you at the end, when Le Guin reads her marvellous piece ‘On Serious Literature’)

Rae Armantrout  Fascinating interview in which she discusses among many things her interest in quantum physics.

Forrest Gander


Manon Revuelta (1990–) is a poet from Auckland. Her chapbook of poems and essays, girl teeth, was published by Hard Press in 2017. Her poems have been published in Minarets, Sweet Mammalian, Deluge, Brief and Turbine. She is currently enrolled in an MA in Creative Writing at IIML, Victoria University, Wellington.







Poetry Shelf Friday talk: Lynn Davidson on the collectivity of writing poetry



I am excited right now about the collectivity of writing poetry; how poems draw from poems. In 2016, soon after arriving in Edinburgh, I was invited to join a collective of women writers who had come together at the request of the Cooper Gallery in Dundee to respond to their exhibition about a 70s collective art movement called the Feministo Postal Art Event. The Postal Art Event began with two artists – Sally Gollop and Kate Walker. When Sally moved away from South London where she and Kate were neighbours to another part of the UK, both women missed sharing their art so began posting small artworks to each other. Other women artists heard of and picked up this idea and in homes across cities, towns and villages in the UK women made, posted and received art and generated a community of artists. We echoed the Feministo Postal Art Event’s process in a 21st Century way, by writing and responding to each other’s work via a shared Google document.

Our collective is called 12. There are twelve of us, we are Edinburgh-based, and we have continued to write and respond to each other’s poems via a shared Google document for more than two years. We sometimes perform our work, and have been asked to respond to several art exhibitions, most recently to Emma Hart’s Banger at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. We are finding that the poems we write for 12 are a bit different to the poems we write outside of that particular circle of response. Why? I’m not sure, but there’s something about being honest about writing from community. About calling our lone selves in from the hills. The collectivity of making is front and centre; no one is pretending otherwise.

Lynn Davidson



Lynn Davidson is a New Zealand writer living in Edinburgh. Her latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press (out this month). Lynn teaches creative writing, works in Edinburgh libraries and is a member of 12, a feminist poetry collective.








Poetry Shelf Friday talk: Johanna Aitchison on anagram poems


Anagram Poems


Like many obsessions, my preoccupation with anagrams began by accident. I am writing my doctoral thesis at the moment, and had been struggling with my topic: alter egos in elliptical poetry. To put it bluntly: all of the alter ego poetry that I was writing for the creative section of my thesis was terrible; not so terrible that it was not even recognisable as poetry, but that uglier low level kind of terrible you get when you’re mining an area that has been all mined out and the work that results is simply boring. So I was on the lookout for inspiration, trawling for ideas that were more interesting than my thesis “starter idea”, when U.S. poet Dora Malech’s latest collection of poetry, Stet (2018), landed on our veranda in an Amazon package. My first thought on reading the poems was, “Huh?”; second thought, “What even is this?”; and then a series of thoughts that tumbled out on top of each other such as, “How does she do this?” “This is amazing!”, and “Wow, I’m so jealous, I wanna write anagram poems, too.”

Stet is a book of poetry which is composed primarily of anagrams, with a side of erasures. Malech states that she is influenced by the German artist and poet, Urnica Zurn, who wrote a series of vivid and disquieting anagram poems in the 1950s, as well as the French school of poetry Oulipo, which uses various restrictive forms to enable creativity, of which the anagram is one.

Thus began my obsession with this form–and the way that you can mine a single sentence or word or, in the case of the third section of Malech’s book, an entire poem (she writes a series of poems which are anagrams of the Sylvia Plath poem “Metaphors”)–and resulting questions (some of which Malech explores in Stet), such as:  How can lyric subjectivity survive within such a tight machine? Is this kind of poetry too sterile and fragmented to really connect with a reader? I am at the beginnings of my explorations in this area, so don’t have any firm answers yet. But writing anagram poems (in which, for example, an entire poem may be made out of a single line, re-arranged) is kind of like build-your-own-nightmare. You get to choose the particular brand of nightmare, and that ambit of it, but within very tight parameters. To put it more another way, it’s like performing back flips in a very tight space; but if you pull it off, the thrill is real.


Johanna Aitchsion



Johanna Aitchison is a doctoral student at Massey University, Palmerston North, examining anagrams and erasures in hybrid poetry. Her most recent volume of poems, Miss Dust (Seraph Press, 2015), was described by reviewer Sarah Quigley as “Emily Dickinson for the 21st century”. Her poetry has appeared in anthologies such as Best New Zealand Poems 2008 and 2009, and Best of Best New Zealand Poems (2011). She was a 2015 resident at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the 2012 Visiting Artist at Massey University.