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Poetry Shelf interviews Brent Kininmont: “Among other threads are those related to ‘drifting’ and ‘sleeping’”

Brent Kininmont 

Brent Kininmont is originally from Christchurch. Except for a year in Wellington, he has lived for the past 16 years in Tokyo. He worked as a journalist at The Japan Times and Reuters news agency, and now teaches intercultural communication. His poems have appeared in JAAM, Landfall, Poetry NZ, The Press, Snorkel, Sport, Takahe, Trout, Turbine, and Best New Zealand Poems 2009 and 2011. His debut collection, Thuds Underneath, was recently published by Victoria University Press.


This is a terrific debut, and I am hard pressed to think of a New Zealand collection quite like this. At times there is a fablesque, dreamlike quality that fleetingly pitches camp in the surreal (whiffs of early Gregory O’Brien), while at other times the real is luminous. The effect is surprising, inventive, original. What sorts of things do you want your poems to do?

In Thuds Underneath I tried to not include poems that couldn’t stand alone, but there is always a danger that a poem will underwhelm, particularly if it’s composed of short lines and compact stanzas, as quite a few of mine are. In a collection, then, I would like the seemingly disparate poems to speak to each other. By conversing, they can help to justify each other’s inclusion.

It would be marvelous if readers noticed the intentional echoes in the book, especially those spaced quite a few pages apart. A blatant example is a title appearing at the start that is repeated towards the end of the collection, as the title of a different poem. That echo is significant, to me at least. Still, I don’t really mind if subtle reverberations do go undetected – it should be enough for me to know they are there, and hopefully a slight bonus for anybody who does notice. Besides, I’m not the ideal reader of my own book; I seldom read collections of poetry cover to cover in one sitting, so I can miss things. I can’t really expect more from the reader than I can actually offer as a reader myself.


Thuds cover   Thuds cover


Right from the start the poems demonstrate a curious mind at work, as though the collection is a cabinet of fascinating things, anecdotes, observations. What feeds your curiosity as a poet?

The strands running through the collection suggest a preoccupation with transport, particularly aircraft, as well as temples and plains, and gaps of various kinds. How my daughter is schooled in Japan interests me ­­– when it’s not frustrating me; this crops up in the book’s final section. I’m also fascinated by the ancient Mediterranean, and that has found form in some of my poems. If I hadn’t ended up in Japan, which obviously has its own deep history of human occupation, I imagine pitching tent in Sicily or The Peloponnese. Recently I have been spending time with some of the key source texts from the classical world (Homer, Herodotus, etc.). Nothing may come of this in my future writing, though it would be nice if something did.


What I love about this debut is the way it offers such diverse and engaging reading routes. I also followed a vein of poetry of travel (not just via geography). The poems generate moments of stillness within the momentum of internal movement. And yes, the locations are global. How do the poems travel in your view?

There are routes I was conscious of while writing the book and others that revealed themselves during the long time spent arranging the poems. The collection is ordered into three locales: classical lands, the South Island, and Japan. I was quite alert to reversing the familiar narrative of leaving New Zealand then coming back; Thuds Underneath could be read as a coming home then departure again – the return is left open-ended. There is also a fairly standard transition from a sense of restlessness at the beginning to an embrace of some stability at the end (though somebody had to point that out to me). The arrival of a daughter seems to contrast with the passing of a mother; and a father keeps appearing, though he is somewhat detached. Among other threads are those related to ‘drifting’ and ‘sleeping’, and imposing structures with godlike attributes. It is those particular threads I was acknowledging with the two epigraphs I included at the beginning of the collection.


Does Japan have an effect upon how you write?

Probably the main effect is the objectivity that living there provides about my home culture and my own learned behavior. Differences seem magnified in a country like Japan, where the language is very dissimilar, but so are discussion styles, the nature of relationships, and the sense of formality. Silence also has a wider range of meanings, in verbal messages and on the written page. Japan, especially in the beginning, forced me to consider why I think and behave in certain ways, and that has likely seeped into how I write, though it is hard to cite specific examples. I have certainly embraced the opportunity that the physical distance from New Zealand has given me to step back and write about my upbringing and education, say, and their effects. Meanwhile, any sense of being culturally isolated from New Zealand is diminished quite a bit by yearly trips home and by the Internet, which allows me to plug into what is going on in local poetry.


One poem bears the epigraph, ‘after Maui and Manhire’. What New Zealand poets have influenced you?

Among the New Zealand books  tagged on my poetry shelves, those by Andrew Johnston and David Beach literally stick out. Beach’s first book of prose sonnets, the drolly titled Abandoned Novel, sparked my interest in the form. Although the sonnets I have written probably differ in style to his, they likely wouldn’t have appeared so prominently in my collection if I hadn’t admired his unique and witty perspectives. Beach’s work was one of my paths to the weighty James K. Baxter. And I got through The Iliad (even weightier) with help from his second collection, The End of Atlantic City, in which 24 sonnets are smart abridgments of the 24 books of Homer’s epic poem. After finishing each book, I would read the corresponding sonnet. It was my small reward for slogging through numerous, and not always engaging, battle scenes. (The fall of Troy in The Iliad niftily contrasts with another 24 sonnets in Beach’s collection, about the survival ­– or slow ‘fall’ ­– of the Wellington suburb of Te Aro.)

I first came across Beach’s work in 2007, the same year I was fortunate to meet regularly with Andrew Johnston, while I was doing the creative writing Masters at Victoria University. Andrew lives in Paris and was only back in New Zealand for that year (like me). Quite a few years earlier his debut, How to Talk, was the first book of poetry I ever bought, and he was the first poet I wanted to write like. His sharp, shorter poems had given me permission to keep trying to write stanzas trimmed of excess. In our regular talks, among many superb insights, he encouraged me to not fret about borrowing ideas from other poets ­– a revelation to me at the time. That he is also a former journalist who lives away from New Zealand could be another reason why I still rely on his poetry for occasional counsel.


Name three poetry books you have loved in the past year.

They would be among those I kept returning to while Thuds Underneath was coming together. Other than volumes by the two poets I mention above, these three stand out (plus two more):

Night Light, by Donald Justice

After the Dance, by Michele Amas

The Street of Clocks, by Thomas Lux

Milky Way Bar, by Bill Manhire

Bell Tongue, by Paola Bilbrough


With kind permission from Brent and VUP a poem from the new collection:



after Maui and Manhire


It can be quite a stretch to haul

the north closer, given that great trench


in between. After lunch we

caught rides on a succession of


straights, a crooked thread line

of far peaks stitching our plains to sheets


of clouds. Only the closed mouth of

the evening vessel stalled us.


Now, among ponga overlooking

the sound, my torch shines on a slim


book she packed. It’s about our known

universe (her tutor said), how we all


live at its edge. In one poem

the word Coromandel really sticks out.


©Brent Kininmont 2015

Poetry Shelf interviews Dinah Hawken — ‘any attempt to mirror the natural world is about relationship’



Dinah Hawken is one of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed poets. Born in Hawera in 1943, she trained as a physiotherapist, psychotherapist and social worker in New Zealand and the United States. Most of the poems in her award-winning first collection It Has No Sound and Is Blue (1987) were written in New York in the mid-1980s while she was studying at Brooklyn College and working with the homeless and mentally ill. Her two most recent books, One Shapely Thing: Poems and Journals (2006) and The Leaf-Ride (2011), were both shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards. Dinah was named the 2007 winner of the biennial Lauris Edmond Award for Distinguished Contribution to Poetry in New Zealand. She lives in Paekakariki. Victoria University Press has just released a new collection of poems, Ocean and Stone.



Did your childhood shape you as a poet?

Yes I’m sure it did. One of my favourite memories as a child is my father reading A.A.Milne – the poems – to me when he came home from the farm. We didn’t have a lot of children’s books in those days (40’s and 50’s) and so he read them over and over again and we knew them by heart. Sometimes my younger brother and I would act a poem out: ‘Sir Hugh was singing hand on hip/when something sudden came along …’. What I loved, looking back, was the way my father and his voice changed when he read these poems. Suddenly he was a changed man, a more mysterious and musical man, and the poems had somehow changed him.

There was one poem that had a profound, perhaps lasting, effect on me psychologically. ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor’ – do you remember it? The dormouse was living happily ‘in a bed of dephiniums (blue) and geraniums (red)’ when the Dr came hurrying around and prescribed instead a bed of chrysanthemums (yellow and white). When ‘they took out their spades and dug up the bed/of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums (red),’ I was devastated at the injustice and imposition of it. They didn’t understand that ‘much the most answering things that he knew/were geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue)’. I was worried by this story – the powerlessness of the small, the arrogance of grown ups – but at the same time I was impressed with the dormouse’s solution of imagination: ‘I’ll pretend the chrysanthemums turn to a bed/of delphiniums (blue) and geraniums(red).’ It made me determined to fight to remain myself, to hold onto my ideas and attractions even if I was misunderstood. Like the dormouse I was a dreamy child, but also an active one – a tomboy, keen on sports and outside a lot with bare feet. I thought of myself as a reader not a writer.


As a young adult, were there any poets in particular to which you were drawn?

When I went to Dunedin as a school leaver, to study Physiotherapy, James K. Baxter was living there and I went to some of his poetry readings and lectures. He was the first NZ poet I had ever heard or read and The Rock Woman (selected poems) was the first book of poetry (besides A Pageant of English Verse) that I had ever owned. I’ve just taken it off the shelf and it is one of the most worn books in my poetry collection. I felt the emotion and music in those poems, the power of ‘the best words in the best order’, and the sense of being understood as a human being who lives in this place, this landscape. Existential questions were in the air for me at 18 or 19 and one poem, ‘The Cold Hub’ gave me a strong sense of fellow-feeling and therefore consolation. Poetry as consolation became important for me.

The next year in Palmerston North was significant for me in terms of poetry too. I had a boyfriend who not only liked poetry (a rare find) but who really loved Baxter and who introduced me to e.e. cummings and Yevtushenko. Both mind-opening in their own ways. What’s more, in Palmerston North, I also made a close friend, Phillappa, a nurse, who read poetry and wrote it. She showed me it was possible even though I didn’t start writing seriously – though secretly – till I was in my late 30’s. She was the first person I showed my poems to at that time. And a couple of years later I applied for Bill Manhire’s undergraduate creative writing course.


Your new collection, Ocean and Stone, is one of your best yet. At times, the poems lead me to a place and point of contemplation (outside urban bedlam). The poems remind me of the way I go down to the beach in the morning and all is the same (sand sea sky), yet there is always a pull of shifting nuances. Do you ever see your poems as a way of translating relations with the natural world, both private and nourishing?

Yes I do. Moments and experiences in the natural world give me such pleasure and uplift that I do have an urge to record and share them even though words so often fail the actual experience. But the attempt feels important. And I’m glad you used the word ‘relations’ because any attempt to mirror the natural world is about relationship. I’m a person who wonders a lot and the world around me is one of the most ‘answering things’ that I know.


And wanders in that wondering. That’s what hooks me as a reader. I find your poems are often things of beauty, yet there is a political edge here. It is as though we can no long view the ocean, for example, solely through the exquisite lens of its moods and bounty. Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?

As time has gone on I realize that I am both a nature poet and a political poet though I don’t set out to be. And I hope not exclusively. A poem usually begins with a phrase, a word, an image or a feeling that has a grip on me in some way. It can be a light and friendly grip or an intense, even painful, grip. The poem develops from that and, because of my interests and preoccupations, political concerns or the landscape, often become a part.

In Ocean and stone there is a poem called ‘The uprising’ that was a commission for Lloyd Jones’s issue of the Griffith Review called Pacific Highways. I began the poem thinking about the Pacific, with no conscious intention of writing a political poem. But I’d just read a book about the state of the world’s oceans and the facts in that book, and my feelings in relation to them, naturally flowed into the poem.

But it’s a balancing act to write a political poem and I sense that many poets might disapprove of my attempts – on the grounds of didacticism, emotionality etc. I’m naturally a direct person and I’ve had to learn more indirect and layered ways of expressing myself in poetry. But I’m also willing to be direct about strong personal feelings – a political poem is also a personal poem.


No matter how many times you write a stone poem, Dinah, you have the ability to replenish the subject (I posted one of my favourites from your new collection here). Do you have other motifs to which you are drawn?

Isn’t it amazing how stirring a small stone, like a blank page, can be? I’ve just looked up that famous poem ‘Pebble’ by Zbigniew Herbert where he writes that the pebble ‘is a perfect creature/ equal to itself’ that ‘does not frighten anything away.’ That seems so true to me.

As far as other motifs go, I don’t know. Water, its fluency? Leaf, its green, its growth? ‘The child’? I find myself thinking a lot at the moment about ‘the stranger’.


Yes definitely water! And the child. The grandchildren poems add a different layer to the collection. They remind me of the way women are often keepers of the family archives (scrapbooks, photo albums, treasure boxes). Do  you feel these poems are as much a gift to the family as they are for the reader?

Definitely. I did write them as a kind of scrapbook, a record of my grandchildren’s early development, trying to ‘hold’ some of the delight and moments of discovery that babies and toddlers go through. I started, in my last book, with Elsa from new-born to 16 months and then carried on with Nate from about that age to two and a half. Such an extraordinary time, as a child meets the world. And as a parent you are often too busy to stand back and see it happening.

I’m about to put all the grandchildren poems together in a small volume for the family – and perhaps for other parents of small children as well.


The untitled fragments throughout the book (that ‘stem from the epigraph which is a found poem from The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry’) are so fertile. I particularly loved: ‘a blank page has limits// and no limits.’ What kind of limits do you bump against as a writer?

I no longer have the external limits of time and stress and children and work that many younger writers have – I feel very lucky in that respect. I love writing without pressure – but on the other hand I do have the limits of older age; lack of energy, poorer memory, uncertain health. I find it harder to find words, I seem to have less access to dreams that were a great resource earlier in my life. Many of the poems in the second part of Ocean and Stone are about living with various kinds of decline.

There’s a difference between limits and limitations and so I also have to live within my inherent limitations as a writer. It seems important at this stage to try and see clearly what they are, whether they have any give in them, and to thrive within them. Limits and limitations have a bad name but I see them as the boundaries within which we can have the most ease and can be the most creative.


I love that dichotomy. Is doubt a key part of the writing process along with an elusive horizon of where you are satisfied with a poem?

Another way of considering the contradiction of ‘limits// and no limits’ is to think about faith and doubt in the writing process. They both seem to be essential: faith to believe that something can come from nothing; and doubt to be always willing to question what comes. When I began writing I would lurch, often painfully, between one and the other, now (fingers crossed) it’s more like quietly shifting weight. But you can’t write, can you, without doubt? You can only try to hold confidence and uncertainty in some kind of balance as you go.

I often have an intuitive idea of when a poem is finished in terms of content and length but the editing and re-arrangement inside it can go on for months. Leaving it for a good length of time helps me a lot – to free up and be less attached to what’s there. I don’t have poet friends, or a group, to share this process with at the moment but have in the past found feedback from others invaluable. It was great to have Fergus and Ashleigh at VUP look carefully at my manuscript for Ocean and Stone.


What poets have mattered to you over the last year?

The two most important books for me in the last year or so – both as a reader and a writer – are The Great Enigma by Tomas Transtromer and Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück. I’ve been attached to Louise Glück’s poetry in the past and was thrilled to discover this one (Carcanet 2014) and find it so impressive. Without your question I mightn’t have noticed that these two books, though different, have the same attraction for me. Both poets use accessible language and strong short sentences developing a narrative that is clear but at the same time mysterious. I love that. They have quite different tones; Glück’s intense, sometimes threatening, Transtromer’s lighter, more surprising. I was strongly aware of Transtromer while writing the first sequence in my book ‘The lake, the bloke and the bike’ but I’m not sure if, or how, his poems might have influenced mine.


What activities enrich your writing life?

Almost everything I do has the potential I expect, but when I think of Ocean and Stone, I see how it reflects a number of my non-writing activities. For example, babysitting grandchildren, gardening, friends, walking on the beach, Tai Chi Chuan. The last sequence in Ocean and Stone , though triggered by the McCahon painting, has a number of the names of Tai Chi postures in it and I wanted the poem to be a kind of Tai Chi sequence even if the reader doesn’t recognize it at all.

There’s no doubt that I’m a poet whose material comes from her own world but in Ocean and Stone I enjoyed very much re-telling the Sumerian myths, forgetting myself, and entering stories from another time and place. Yet stories that have relevance still.


Victoria University Press page

NZ Book Council page

Poetry Shelf interviews Fiona Farrell – ‘Fiction seemed a kind of insult, really, to people experiencing such difficult or appalling narratives of fact’




Fiona Farrell is a much loved New Zealand author who writes in a variety of genres (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, mixed genre) and who is unafraid to test the boundaries of heart, intellect and craft whenever and however she writes. She has won awards: The Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction in 2007 and she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Literature in 2012. She has published numerous books: poetry, short fiction, novels and non fiction. I have always been a huge fan of her writing in all genres because, whatever she writes, it is always something that matters to me. It changes things for me both as a human and as a writer. Her latest book, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: A hundred ways to read a city (Vintage, 2015), seemed like a good chance to ask some questions.

This book is simply astonishing. It is a book warm and sharp, so beautifully crafted, that depends upon an astute mind at work, a heart that travels and cares, ears that attend,  eyes that reap images, experiences. It is a book of Christchurch; a book that signposts the city of the past, navigates the city of the present and dreams the city of the future. Both poetic and political, the protagonist Christchurch enacts a layering of cities. In this mind and that mind. From this mouth and that mouth. Here and there. It is an essential read, not just in the way it draws you into the unspeakable (a city devastated), but in the way it reminds you of what it means to live in communities. If our media (in part) is reluctant to sustain deep, keen and rigorous analysis of the ideologies and the structures that shape us, then thank heavens for a book like this. I love the fact that when Fiona embarks on a project she is not sure whether she can pull it off. That to me underlines her courage and her tenacity. If I recommend one book this year, this is it.


The Interview:


The title of your new book, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: A hundred ways to read a city, brought to mind Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Calvino’s narrator, Marco Polo, seduces the ear of Kublai Khan with tales of marvellous cities, yet we discover these cities are the overlap of one city, Venice. A city cannot be reduced to a singular version. At the heart of your book, and it is a book with a beating heart, lies Christchurch. It is a Christchurch in physical pieces because of the catastrophic earthquake, but it is also a city in cerebral and emotional pieces, in both past and future versions, in the minds of the inhabitants. Was it a struggle to move from your embryonic starting point to the structure you choose?

I began by writing a multitude of pieces, exactly the way I would set out on writing a poem, or really any piece: just writing what was most pressing that morning. It felt particularly apt for this book as it was about structures that had fallen in pieces anyway – solid things like chimneys, but also abstract things like a feeling of security. The difficult part was assembling all those pieces into a coherent whole.


At one point you write, ‘For awhile after the quakes, there was the phantom city.’ A bit like the ache of a missing limb. What I love about your book is the way you have been the loving hunter and gatherer who pulls together some of these the missing versions. What cities have been lost? What cities have been gained?

Memory takes a while to overtake reality, I find. I remember talking to someone who had broken a leg on a tramping trip, but who managed to walk out to the road end, before feeling the most excrutiating pain. It seems as if shock can bestow a period of unreality which helps people continue to function until they have time and space to fall apart. The city lost was an assembly of routines around specific structures: walks to the cinema, or to visit friends, the way into town, the way home. The city gained is a place of surprise: I swing between enjoying the surprises of not quite knowing where the shoe shop or the bookshop or the lawyer’s office is, that makes a kind of board game of going into town, and missing the routines and structures of the past.


To me this book is vital and necessary; a book we should all read because it not only casts a light on the consequences of the earthquake but on how we shape cities as much as cities shape us. Fiona, you do this through a layering of voice. I would like to explore some of these. First there is the documentary voice. This book comes out of research but that research seems to have taken many forms. Importantly, it strengthens both the intelligence and the heart of the book. What kind of research did you embark upon?

I read and talked and walked or drove about. Kept boxfuls of clippings, read anything that felt as if it might comment on the situation, talked to anyone and everyone: the stories simply poured in. And of course I was in the city constantly, attending to my flat and its repair or rebuild and simply adapting to new circumstances in which to live an ongoing life: going to movies after a year or so when there was a cinema in which I felt comfortable; visiting friends in their motels or temporary homes, or in the places away from the city to which they had moved or in their homes once they had been repaired; finding the shops that I have always used as they resurfaced in other locations, or substitutes for the ones that ceased trading.


And then there is a narrative voice at work here delivering a narrative momentum that generates story (of a city, of many cities). Did you see yourself at some point telling stories?

Yes – definitely. Story telling is primary. It’s how we frame our lives.


The second part of this project takes the form of a novel. It will be fascinating to see how the one changes the way you see the other. What can you do in the fiction version that you couldn’t do in this version? Or vice versa?

I see this first book as the bedrock: the foundation. I haven’t felt like writing fiction during these past five years. Fact simply eclipsed it. Fiction seemed a kind of insult, really, to people experiencing such difficult or appalling narratives of fact. Why make things up, when such stories were all around? The facts were big and more than enough to occupy the imagination. I had never realized how very egocentric the action of writing fiction is: I knew it had evolved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as an expression of a period of intense individualism, but I hadn’t truly felt that until now. Fiction seemed frivolous, self-indulgent. Poetry on the other hand felt valid: there was a tradition there of elegies and laments to validate the writing of poems. Non-fiction too was validated by the long tradition of recording facts. There was a sense of being the eyewitness, noting things for future readers.

But more recently, I’ve begun to miss fiction. In fiction, I can bring together a vast mass of disparate detail – because there are literally thousands of stories here, in archives and online and unrecorded but part of individual spoken history – into a single narrative which will I hope – and this is only hope because it might not work at all: I won’t know till it’s all finished –convey the feeling of being here. So the novel will be poised on top of this basis of fact, and together I hope they will form a document about being a citizen of a small New Zealand city in this era. That’s the plan, at any rate.


Wonderful! There is a strong political voice at work here. Insistent, incisive, astute, courageous. It embraces the personal as much it navigates the minefields of bureaucracy and government, and is always prepared to protest. Earthquake politics are astonishing.

Catastrophe sharpens perception. The politics of this event have exposed divisions that have existed all along in this country and are not particular to Christchurch, but here they have become evident in extreme circumstances.


And then there is the autobiographical voice. In writing through the filter of your own experience what discoveries did you make?

I write always to explain things to myself, no matter what the medium. My principal motive in writing the book was to try and cope with bewilderment. Seneca’s essay was written because he felt that one way to attend to fear was through understanding of the mechanics of natural events, so I picked up on that.


I wonder, too if the voice of the poet is hiding in the pen. As soon as I started reading, I was drawn into a poetic fluency. The writing is utterly beautiful at the level of the sentence. Sentences are little cascades that accrue thought and detail in their mesmerising movement. How important was the sentence?

I’m not aware of crafting sentences. I’m just trying to be clear, to myself in the first instance. If they sound good, that’s a plus! I’m pleased they do.


This marriage of thought and physical detail is a triumph in the book, yet it also resonates within the city: ‘Political theory is finding expression in bees and trees and streets and corrugated iron and stone as the frontier oppidum grows beyond the frame, up the slopes of the volcanic hills and across the plain.’ Can you comment on the way theory is laying down roots in Christchurch’s real world? Do you think at times there is a scandalous gap between earthquake ideology and the everyday world?

I quote Naomi Klein who was quoting Friedman and the opportunities for capitalism during disaster. Christchurch is a perfect example of neoliberal theory – insofar as I understand it – in action. This is what disaster capitalism actually feels like on the ground.


Does the media unpick these ideologies for us successfully?

I doubt that there is much in the book that would come as a surprise to anyone who has been living here and reading the Press every day. Elsewhere however, newspapers and tv, with the exception of John Campbell, have seemed intent on creating a PR fairytale of national wellbeing, a rockstar economy, and boundless opportunity in the south. Why and how this is happening would be the subject for another whole book. My short answer to this question would be ‘no’.


You explore the narratives of street signs as though each sign becomes a little discovery to which you were previously immune as you drove or walked past. What other discoveries stood out for you?

How very flat the city is. The buildings gave the illusion of height. But no – this was and still is, a swamp.


The section on Acquilla, and its restoration plans, is such an eye opener. The way brick by fallen brick, the city is being lovingly restored. When you move as reader from there to what is happening in Christchurch it is heartbreaking. What frustrates you most about the restoration plans for Christchurch? What gives you hope?

I don’t think there is any point in ‘might have beens…’ In any situation – personal or civic. You must deal with what is. What frustrates me most about the rebuilding of the city has been the way that central Government has constantly undermined the operation of the City Council, the transfer of absolute power to a single government minister whose personal aesthetic is clearly determining the shape of the city, the waste of money gathered from taxpayers throughout the country on rugby stadiums and convention centres for which local ratepayers are going to be paying for decades, shall I go on? I’ve tried to talk about it in calmer, more reasoned terms in the book, as I can degenerate into rant fairly quickly. Hope? Well, there are so many creative and visionary people around and once the big boys have made their pile and abandoned the sandpit, they’ll come out and restore beauty to the heart.


You mentioned  your love of poetry so let’s talk about poetry for a bit.


Your poetry represents a unique and essential voice in New Zealand. There is the musical lift of each line, the surprise, the world brought closer in luminous detail. These are poems that matter at the level of being human. I am an immense fan. Were you able to write poems while working on this project?

No – I find I can’t write poetry in the same breath as prose.


What are key things for you when you write a poem?

The key thing is feeling. That’s what makes me write a poem – an overwhelming rush of feeling.


You write in a variety of genres (poetry, non-fiction, critical writing). Does one have a particular grip on you as a writer?

I love switching between genres, changing pace.


I loved the shift between poetry and prose in The Broken Book. Some critics were irked by this. Not me. It utterly worked. Enacted in a way the stuttering disconnections of a broken city. Since I first picked up a book by you (The Skinny Louie Book) I have admired your ability to push boundaries, not for the sake of breaking (as Virginia Woolf once said) but for the sake of creating. Are you drawn to smudging writing boundaries?

I like ‘making’ a book, as an artefact, something crafted, an object. So The Broken Book pleases me with its little squiggles of aftershocks and the shorter lines of the poems interrupting the blocks of prose.  I like the playfulness of writing, even about serious subjects.


What irks you in poetry?

Incomprehension. I don’t mean that everything has to be spelled out, but that as a reader, I want to be able to see why the poem might have been constructed as it has.


What delights you?

Playfulness. The sense of words drawing attention to themselves.


Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

Bill Manhire’s 100 NZ Poems, your 150 NZ Love Poems, and Essential NZ Poems/Facing the Empty Page (edited by Harvey, Norcliffe and Ricketts).


What poets, here or abroad, have sparked you in some kind of way?

Medieval poets – Irish poems like Pangur Ban or the Old Woman of Beare, or the English monk writing ‘this passed away, this also may’. I have found that line enormously comforting in a variety of situations – not during a Viking raid, thank god.


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?

Yes. Absolutely. I wrote poems throughout my childhood. Still have the collection in a school notebook that I compiled when I was about 13.  I also liked riding ponies, reading and building huts.


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 guess Richard Burton reading Under Milkwood and the poems of John Donne. He had such a melting voice.


Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing?

I stopped writing poetry at university. Began writing essays and theses which I loved and didn’t write a thing till my dad died when I was 35.  That’s when I started writing again.


Do you think your poetry writing has changed over time?

Not really. I find I keep coming back to the same kinds of themes. Life is a tangled endless thread, I’ve discovered.


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?

No rules. Not in any form of writing. Just experiment and see what works.


I think that is why I love your writing so much in all genres. 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?

Sitting quietly on my own in a hut. Sitting raucously in the company of friends. Going for long walks – for weeks on end, ideally.


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?

The one closest to hand, just to see what was there.


Fiona Farrell’s web site

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The Berlin Writer’s Residency: Poetry Shelf Interviews Hinemoana Baker – I need to feel surprised by the language but not distracted by it.


Hinemoana Baker  Album cover finished  waha_front__71664.1407673414.1280.1280

Photo credit: Robert Cross

Hinemoana Baker is an acclaimed Wellington-based poet who was recently awarded the Berlin Writer’s Residency. She descends from the South Island’s Ngāi Tahu and from the North Island’s Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa. She also has English and Bavarian lineage. Victoria University Press has published her three poetry collections: mātuhi | needle (2004), kōiwi | kōiwi (2010) and  waha | mouth (2014). She has produced five CDs of poetry and music. Hinemoana was the Queensland Poet in Residence, has participated in the Iowa International Creative Writing Programme and was Victoria University’s Writer in Residence in 2014. She is currently convening a Poetry Workshop and with Tina Makereti co-convenes  a Māori and Pasifika Writing Workshop at IIML in Wellington.


Congratulations on receiving the 2015 Berlin residency Hinemoana. This seems like a golden opportunity to talk about poetry and writing, but first, what projects do you plan to work on while you are there?

Thank you very much Paula, I really appreciate the congratulations. It still doesn’t quite seem real yet, but I’m booking my tickets this afternoon, so it must be, right?? In Berlin I hope to finish a new collection of poetry. As is the way of writing projects, I will also be continuing work on a family memoir called ‘Dear Mother Basillise’, which is proving to be an even more gigantic undertaking than I had thought at first.


Poets often suggest writing a poem is an act of discovery as opposed to the rendition of a predetermined plan. Being in a foreign city is also an act or discovery but it may involve a bit of planning. What sorts of places and experiences attract you?

Several things. I spent a week or so there in 2012, and I was compelled by the history of the city, and fell in love with its present-day self, too. The markets, the many dogs on the streets, the public transport, the way people seem to walk so much slower than they do here.

Also, my mother’s ancestors are from Oberammergau in Bavaria, so travelling there will be much easier from Berlin. I visited once in my 20s, but I want to go again. It’s near the Black Forest, and it’s where the residents have staged the Passion Play every ten years since 1634, in return for god having spared them from the plague. The play brings many tourists to the village. The script has a history of anti-semitism, though some changes have been made to that over the years. I feel a million miles away from a place like Oberammergau, in almost every way, and yet my close ancestors sailed here from there (via Hamburg).

I am keen to experience the arts culture of Berlin, music and poetry and sonic art and burlesque and everything else. I want to join the Berlin Pop Choir and do tango. I want to eat grilled fish sandwiches at the market every weekend and drink Weiss Bier. I want to bike everywhere. Walk around in snow. Visit friends (and hopefully woo publishers) in Italy, London, Manchester. Drift through the Christmas Markets and museums and art galleries. Be anonymous.


What effect does travel have upon your writing? Can you write on the move? Or do you absorb and store and write later when it comes to poetry?

I write best when I’m on the move. Trains work best for me. I think it’s something to do with there being boundaries around the length and nature of the experience. And someone else is driving.


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 wrote poems and stories and even a few chapters of a novel as a young child. I don’t remember being really transformed by poetry until I was a teenager, though. Alistair Campbell and Fleur Adcock and Hone Tuwhare and Leonard Cohen, I memorised poems and said them aloud to myself until I cried. I had a wonderful English teacher at Waimea College who really encouraged my own writing.

I read a lot of Enid Blyton and Doctor Seuss as a kid, and I turned out ok. I was pretty much an only child, so I played a lot on my own or with my next-door-neighbour skater-boy friends. I liked skateboarding. I liked music. I became addicted to Louis Armstrong at a young age, and then Kate Bush when I turned 12.


What New Zealand poets are you drawn to now?

So many! I’m going to choose three here (refer to comment about time and boundaries above). Lynn Jenner – her latest book, Lost and Gone Away, is sustaining me at the moment. A person on Facebook whose user name isn’t, I don’t think, her real name: Hangi Pants. Heh heh. She posts poems in her feed once a month or so and I hang out for those days. It’s such good stuff. And Bill Manhire. If I had written ‘Hotel Emergencies’ I would probably just put my pen down and spend the rest of my life feeling smug. Thank god Bill hasn’t done that.


I agree on ‘Hotel Emergencies!’ Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.

OK three different poets this time. The Bengal Engine’s Mango Afterglow by Geoff Cochrane. Star Waka by Robert Sullivan. Wild Dogs Under My Skirt by Tusiata Avia.


What about poets from elsewhere?

Sharon Olds, Joyelle McSweeney and Joy Harjo.


What poets have mattered to you over the past year? Some may have mattered as a reader and others may have sparked you as a writer.

My friend and art mentor Siân Torrington has begun writing more alongside her visual art. Her courage and determination towards freedom are things I’d like to emulate. Also her work ethic. I have been very moved by Rilke and Pablo Neruda, whose work I’ve only really started to investigate in the last couple of years.


I love the way your poetry is anchored in the real world in a way that makes physical detail luminous yet does so much more. This is what I wrote in my review of your most recent collection (waha | mouth): ‘your poetic melodies remind us that there are other layers of reality embedded here, layers that sing and tremble in the candle light — joy, pain, recognition, trust, narratives that we inherit and carry with us.’ What are some key things for you when you write a poem?

I have to feel like the poem is being co-written in a way – by me and by the poem itself. I need to feel surprised by the language but not distracted by it. I want to feel after I’ve written it that it has taught me something about the nature of life, or love, or the heart, or politics, or power, or just language.


Do you see yourself as a political poet? Overtly so or in more subtle ways?

No, not really. But I see myself as a person who is acutely aware of the dynamics of power. I am not as well-versed in local or global history and politics as I would like to be, but I’m constantly learning and reading. When that learning moves me and/or transforms me, it will no doubt make its way into my poems in some way.


In 99 Ways into NZ Poetry, I talked about the way the opening poem of your debut collection mātuhi | needle acts as a mihi. It invites us as readers across the threshold into the meeting ground that is poetry but that is also a surrogate marae. Now I see your poetry (as a whole) laying down invitations. Labels are tricky things but do you see yourself as a Māori poet? What differences does your Māori inheritance make to your writing?

I think the one thing my Māori self contributes to my writing, whether I like it or not, is a keen sense that there are feelings everywhere. People and places are alive and sensate and usually in some state of pain or longing. There’s a saying I heard once, I can’t remember where, but it was someone indigenous speaking about someone else ‘acting as if she has no relatives’. My relatives are everywhere, and not just because I have a big extended family.


The titles of your collections juxtapose English and Māori underlining these two personal lineages. Do you see this relationship as a rope (entwined, frayed, strong)? A bridge with different rhythms of traffic?

I’m not going to do it any more, this bi-lingual title thing. I’ve done what I wanted to do with it. Which is to, somehow, lock the different voices together for a moment.


You are a terrific musician and performer of your work. It shows, too, with the writing on the page. There is an exquisite cadence that draws upon silence as much as it does the shifting melodies. Do you write poetry as musician as much as you do as wordsmith?

I think in the end the thing I’m most interested in is sound. Adding meaning to the mix is a bonus, but it’s hard to keep meaning contained, and it can get a bit out of hand. I hope to make good and interesting sounds in people’s heads and in the air with what I write on the page.


Do you think your writing has changed over time?

Yes, but only in that I’ve gotten more confident.


I love the way you are unafraid of heart. Your poetry has a beating pulse that is both warm and inviting and utterly human. As a reader there are electric connections between my heart and the heart of the poem. How does heart matter to you as you write?

I try and make poems that matter, in the sense that people might care about them, because they might get that heart feeling from them. What you’ve said here is very honouring, Paula.


Is there a single poem or two in your collections that particularly resonates with you?

‘Rope’, because I didn’t even hear the ‘rape’ rhyme until a few hours after I’d written it. And ‘Magnet Bay’, because it was the last holiday I had with my ex-partner Christine, and I remember walking that beautiful land with her and playing taonga pūoro in the sun.


Your two books are beautiful to behold. How important is it to you that a poetry book is an object of beauty in view of its ‘look.’

I like a good cover image! And I like the book’s arrangement and font to be reader-friendly and readily available.


As my review attests, I loved your last collection. Did you make any discoveries as you wrote it?

You’re very kind. I discovered as I wrote it that it is very hard for me to write about things as they are happening. Sometimes I can do it – I wrote the Terrorism poem in kōiwi while that appalling crap was still going on. But mostly I have to wait. The experiences I had in the years writing waha will probably turn up in my next collection.


In the blurb for this book you wrote: ‘I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.’ I adore the comparison of the act of reading to holding the light of candle to a poem where something will always remain in the dim shadows, barely sighted, inaudible. How do the light and dark of poetry matter to you?

Like all the binaries – tension/release, light/dark, sad/happy – it’s the dance they do that makes art, for me. If you believe in binaries, that is.


What irks you in poetry?



What delights you?



Is doubt a key part of the writing process along with an elusive horizon of where you are satisfied with a poem?

I don’t know if it’s a key part, but it seems to be an unavoidable part of my process. There’s some kind of off-balance precarious posture I manage to achieve between giving up altogether and re-working obsessively. It never feels comfortable or certain, and it never feels reproducible. After finishing a poem, I’m often certain, I’ll never be able to write another one.


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?

Walking the wild coastline of Wellington, and her streets and waterfront, her Town Belt. Visiting with other artists’ work whenever I can. I teach creative writing sometimes, and that always makes me fall in love with language all over again.


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?

Cardinal rules, no. Guidelines, yes. They’re really the same as for other kinds of writing. Show don’t tell. Concrete images. Verbs and nouns are often more powerful than adjectives. Etc. But there are some that pertain to poetry in particular I suppose – especially around line breaks and stanzas etc. That said, if I did have a cardinal rule, it would probably be ‘Don’t publish a poem your writing group hasn’t seen.’ One day I might break this rule but it’s served me well so far.


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



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?

Something by Robert Hass – I’d have lots of time for re-reading, and Robert Hass very much rewards re-reading…



Hinemoana’s web site

Victoria University Press page

Victoria University page

NZ Book Council Author page