Tag Archives: Poet’s Choice

Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Marty Smith makes some picks


A poem can come into the room quietly but I hope for the ones that sneak up to grab me by the neck and rattle my brains. That’s Anis Mojgani – I love it when you get someone new who is rich, rich, rich. His power keeps on springing out; no matter how many times I read and reread his poems, they refuse to dull and they keep startling up silvery:

‘the sickle makes its own rules


how it glints in the moonlight

how it shines like a one worded whisper’


I love also the stinging beauty of Jennifer Compton’s Now You Shall Know (Five islands Press) and her wryly observant voice: now tough, now tender, now distant, now close. She has space and silence and a side-swiping humour and she doesn’t back off from anything, not even her mother-in-law’s dying: from ‘My Mother-In-Law Comes to Poetry Late in Life’

then as the walls of her brain cells broke

scrambled but yes dazzling intimacies

spilt out


Since I’m currently at work on presenting the people of the racing world through the vernacular, I’m reading non-fiction. Gerald Murnane’s memoir of the turf, Something for the Pain is the last and quietest of my picks. I love his courtly phrasing and his acerbic humour, and his deep love and fascination with the racing world, which for him offers more than religion or philosophy. It doesn’t hurt that when he’s drunk at dinner parties he likes to argue that horseracing has as much to teach us as Shakespeare.


On my waiting list is Voices from Chernobyl, the oral history by Svetlana Alexievich, presented through layers and layers of spoken witness. I was less than a 1000km from Chernobyl when the reactor blew, out in the air eating leafy greens and touching dust in the three days panicked authorities were hard on denial (the radiation levels are normal) and the nuclear cloud passed over, and rained on us. Therefore I have a lightly radiated interest of my own in the particulars, trivial as it is in the face of the terrible and compelling experiences of people who were less than 1km from the reactor and who were also allowed to stay outside.


Anis Mojgani is coming to NZ for the Wellington festival. YouTube clip. Festival details. Full progamme out in January.


Marty Smith

Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: David Eggleton makes some picks


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Some of my most intense local poetry reading experiences this year have been as a literary editor, working my way through hundreds of poems and finding something wonderful in many of them, and then cherry-picking from these for Landfall 229 and Landfall 230; but beyond that the stack of new slim volumes looms, and I’ve elected to mention four poetry collections I enjoyed musing over.

‘No, not Bali or Samarkand. Take/ me down to the Dominion Road . . .’ Peter Bland commands in his collection Expecting Miracles (Steele Roberts), drawing you in immediately with his canon-echoing rhythms and decluttered simplicity. His poems have a casual, conversational tone that belies their craft, bolstered by an oldster’s genial humour and air of wry bemusement at the oddity of the quotidian: he’s a metropolitan in a provincial culture.

  Gregory O’Brien‘s Whale Years (Auckland University Press) navigates its way around the South Pacific as if following the drift of ocean currents. In this collection, he’s a beachcomber pointing to curious flotsam and jetsam. His poems are mantras, notations, journal jottings, gatherings-together of cadenced imagery, and compelling in the way they combine astrological zodiacs, weather balloons, shipwrecks, islands. Collectively, the sense is of a star-trek odyssey, recapitulating ecological markers of the anthropocene era, Notably, too, the exoticism of travel helps generate a semi-arcane vocabulary, serving to align his verses with the baroque wing of New Zealand poetry: there where Kendrick Smithyman sculls in the sunset.

I was also very taken by the skewed reminiscences in Morgan Bach‘s first collection Some of us eat the seeds (Victoria University Press). Spiky, terse, yet also lyrical and tonally subtle, they recount a sense of adolescent awkwardness and estrangement, almost as if at times she’s ogling the outside world and its emotional coldness from her own private igloo, growing up in small town provincial New Zealand and longing to be elsewhere. But if she offers a return to childhood as a rejection of the sugar puff Disneyland of a commodified Nineties environment, she does this by crafting a version of Banksy’s subversive Dismaland: ironic, comic, sharply observant about the advertised ‘great expectations’ we have been led to expect from the product called ‘Life’.

Her poetic intuitions result in a cleverly-written-up sequence of what might be termed out-of-body experiences: the feeling of towering over shuffling Japanese passers-by in Tokyo; watching her screen-actor father die successively in movie after movie; and then ultimately a kind of ecstatic insight that turns her collection full circle: ‘the way you felt swimming/ in the rain that hammered/ when you put your head above water to see/ lightning flash in the pitch of the sky’ (‘The swimming pool’).

Frankie McMillan‘s There are no horses in heaven (Canterbury University Press) contains a multitude of poems rife with the storyteller’s art, proving her a kind of fabulist, distilling states of enchantment and sometimes states of disenchantment into a few lines ever so lightly and delicately, so that her shortish poems seem to musically chime with one another. And it’s as if you can carry them with you wherever you go. As she puts it: ‘What I want to say is something small/ enough to hold within the crook of my arm/ and that is not the half of it’.

And then there’s her poem ‘Observing the ankles of a stranger’, about a tourist being startled out of her wits when Ruaumoko’s seismic fists of fury pummeled central Christchurch almost into the ground on February 22nd, 2011. Here enchantment— or metamorphosis — takes the form of feeling lost in a familiar habitat as the dust settles. We need more such terrific poems.

David Eggleton

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Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Diane Brown makes her picks

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Most mornings my husband and I, (which sounds like the Queen, but I can assure you is not) read poems to each other. It’s a lovely way to start a day of mostly words and brings a focus back to the interior after reading the newspaper.

It takes a while to get through collections this way. You could call it slow poetry. At the moment we are reading Emma Neale’s Tender Machines and Vincent O’Sullivan’s Selected Poems, Being Here. They are Dunedin based poets at different ends of their poetry careers, but what treasures are contained in both books. Vincent’s cool, sardonic, intensely observational eye and Emma’s brilliantly executed white hot wordplay as she explores family life in all its intensity and moves into global and environmental concerns.


The book we have finished and both laughed and wept over from the first page to the last is The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy. It’s an amazing collection of poems with a wide variety of subjects: love poems; moving elegies to her mother; rollicking drinking poems; angry political poems and. throughout, bees hover, fragile life-givers, whose existence along with ours is threatened. And apart from the bees holding all these poems together is the way every poem sings a love of words, with internal rhymes, alliteration, repetition, but in a way that is completely natural, sometimes angry, sometimes joyous. If you know someone who is mystified by poetry, try them with some of these poems. Yes, she’s a popular poet who may not appeal to readers who laud the esoteric and experimental, but she writes intelligent poems about important subjects and issues, the stuff of life. In a short poem, ‘Spell,’ Duffy says, ‘I think a poem is a spell of kinds, / that keeps things living in a written line.’ Her poems are charming in the true sense of the word, burrowing into your brain and, most importantly, your heart as you breathe them in.


A few lines from the tremendously moving poem, ‘Water’, about her dying mother.



What a mother brings

                                     through darkness still

to her parched daughter.’


Diane Brown

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Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Nina Powles makes her picks

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Having just finished my MA in poetry, this year has been not just one of writing but of reading poetry hungrily and intensely.

One of the joys of getting to know 10 other writers so closely was the huge number of new writers I discovered thanks to them. Two books I might otherwise never have come across were the challenging but sonically beautiful The Dream of the Unified Field by American poet Jorie Graham, and Claudia Rankine’s powerful and experimental Citizen.

Thanks to one of our visiting writers Australian novelist Michelle de Kretser, I read The Deep by Canadian writer Mary Swan. The Deep is a dreamlike novella set during WWI and I think it changed my life in 71 pages.


It was also an amazing year for new New Zealand poetry. I enjoyed falling into the spiky and surreal world of Miss Dust by Johanna Aitchison. And every single one of Joan Fleming’s Failed Love Poems made me feel breathless and lightheaded, a bit like being struck repeatedly by tiny bolts of lightning. From ‘Heathcliff’:

we know where to find the black tips / exquisite / of a soft tearaway / of what flew / and sang / we know the other is / best heard / in atmospheres / of howling


LEFT, edited by Wellington writer Jackson Nieuwland, is a book more people should know about. It’s heavy and enormous and full of fresh and startling art, fiction and poetry in glossy full-colour by New Zealand and American writers, including two of my favourite young poets Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle and Hera Lindsay Bird. From ‘Pain Imperatives’ by Hera Lindsay Bird:

You have to think ‘love has radicalized me’ and walk around like Helen of Troy

You have to walk around until the ships burn off


This year I also discovered the possibilities of the long-form poem, especially in Sarah Jane Barnett’s new book WORK, Alice Oswald’s Memoriam, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I’d read Autobiography of Red before but this year it suddenly became important to me in a new and startling way. For months I carried it around with me, knowing I could open it on any page and it would floor me:


Herakles switched on the ignition and they jumped forward onto the back of the night.

Not touching

but joined in astonishment as two cuts lie parallel in the same flesh.


Nina Powles


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Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Siobhan Harvey makes some picks

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Like a lot of contributors here I have adored reading Emma Neale‘s Tender Machines (Otago University Press). These are heartfelt, accomplished poems, buoyed by small details and big concerns.

Two other books which journeyed with me through 2015 were from the amazing HOOPLA series published by Makaro Press. Bryan Walpert manages to make the poems in his collection, Native Bird at once intimately familial and deeply contemplative encounters. I’m particularly in awe of how Walpert connects the personal to the universal, thematically linking migration to national ornithology.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jen Compton for the first time a few years ago when we were guests at the Queensland Poetry Festival. Her warm personality enshrines a magnificent poetic mindset as her latest Mr Clean and the Junkie proves. Like Neale’s Tender Machines, this book is presently long-listed for the Occam New Zealand Book Award. It’s easy to see why for it’s an astonishing mix of poetic dexterity, film scripting, examination of gender roles and a big story about everyday people connected to a seamy Sydney casino scam.

Siobhan Harvey


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Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Jane Arthur makes her picks



I feel like I was luckier than everyone else this year because I got to read my classmates’ work at the IIML where I was working on my MA folio. I don’t understand how there can be so many good writers around, but there are and I have the proof. At some time in the future, I will choose Nick Bollinger’s ‘Goneville’ as one of my books of the year – it’s a music bio/memoir/cultural history and it just won the Adam Prize for being excellent. Please also check out the latest issue of Turbine online to see how clever my other classmates are.

Tim Upperton’s The Night We Ate the Baby came along right when I needed it this year. It does things and says things poetry “shouldn’t”. It kicks against beauty, niceties, and resolution. A few times, it does this self-referentially, like: poetry is such a dick. Eww, poetry, you’re so gross (see “Fonnet”). It’s a breeze to read and the speaker of the poems is great because he’s such a grumpy bastard. A sucker-punch for anyone who thinks poetry is difficult and pretentious.

Louise Glück’s Vita Nova couldn’t be more different from Upperton’s book, but I loved it too. Each poem feels like a whisper, somehow, though they kept on kicking me in the gut when I wasn’t looking. It’s bloody beautiful. Hold your breath and eat it, I reckon.

I rediscovered the joy of Beauty Sleep by Kate Camp, which is full of zany turns and genuinely funny bits, and the blurting-out of thoughts I’m so fond of in my own life and writing. And the poem “Yuri Gagarin’s bed” has an ending that made me gawp at its honesty and perfection.

Jane Arthur

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Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Sarah Jane Barnett’s picks

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This year two collections have really stayed with me. I keep on thinking about them for their content, but also their craft.

First is Emily Dobson’s second collection, The Lonely Nude (VUP). I reviewed it for Landfall Review Online and it’s a beautifully shaped and paced collection. It follows Dobson’s life as she moves overseas (and then finally back to New Zealand) and the poems gently draw you in, build, and echo. Pure poetic goodness.

Second is Joan Fleming’s second collection, Failed Love Poems (VUP). I know Joan’s work very well and in this collection she has broken through all sorts of barriers. It’s mature and exploratory and accomplished. It’s unafraid. It’s simply awesome, and the poem, ‘The invention of enough’ will break your heart.

Sarah Jane Barnett

Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Jack Ross makes a few picks

First of all, Jane Summer‘s wonderful poetic memoir Erebus, about the death of her friend Kay Barnick on the ill-fated flight in 1979.

I guess New Zealanders tend to think that we own this particular disaster — and of course there’s the precedent of Bill Sewell’s fine book on the subject — but the personal intensity combined with genre-busting inventiveness of this book-length poem completely absorbed me.

Good on Sibling Rivalry Press of Little Rock Arkansas for spending so much time on the design and layout of this book, and thanks to Jane Summer for sending me a review copy (for PNZ). I might never have come across it otherwise.

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My other favourite book this year is Olivia Macassey‘s The Burnt Hotel (Titus Books, 2015). It’s been far too long since we’ve heard from her, and this book has many old favourites as well as new ones.

The dreamy, lyric, intensely introspective and yet never self-indulgent truth of Liv’s writing continues to enchant in this new book. And Brett Cross and Ellen Portch’s design work on it is really beautiful. Their Titus poetry volumes are now among the most handsome in the New Zealand poetry canon, I think.


Jack Ross

Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: CK Stead makes a pick

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On Wednesday at Auckland University Press I launched Anne French’s new collection, The Blue Voyage. Anne has always been a sailor (a ‘yachtie’) and the sea figures somewhere in all her books. The title sequence in this one is based on sailing in the Aegean, south of Turkey. This gives her both seascapes and landscapes/cityscapes, the flora, and even something of the history and changing politics, of the region. There is an amusing set of poems by Anne’s invented local poet, William Butler Smith who has more than an accidental connection with W.B. Yeats; and by contrast, some translations of exquisitely delicate poems by the Korean modernist, Han Yong-un. Anne has always seemed to me a clever poet who tells things as they are, and as they have been, from a woman’s perspective (remember The male as evader, a few years back?)and that is still the case; but there are gentler notes now, and some very touching elegies, including one for Nigel Cox, one to ‘Uncle Max’, and one (in cricketing terms) to ‘Auntie Paddy’ whose

heart ticked on long after

she’d stopped eating, talking, or looking

forward to anything but the walk

back to the pavilion.


I think maybe the central poem of the book for me is one called ‘Ziran’, where after a rough passage sailing they have emerged into calm seas and she’s ‘leaning back against two sail bags / singing Puccini.’

The Chinese word for ‘natural’ is self-so,

John tells me later: true to its own nature

and the way of the world. Self-so then is this joy

that fills every part of me and lifts me into myself.


The thought of being lifted into, rather than out of, oneself is typical of the small surprises she delivers. This is a book full of Self-so.


CK Stead

Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Lynn Davidson makes her picks

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There are so many books to catch up on now the PhD is done and dusted! But of the poetry I managed to read this year, these ones stayed with me. John Dennison’s Otherwise combines really fine crafting with breadth of vision and a deep interest in connectedness, including with other New Zealand writers. From ‘Lone Kauri (reprise)’: ‘So take for starters the surge-black fissure, / the waves which register the lunatic sense / it is all well beyond us.’

Lynn Jenner’s Lost and Gone Away brings us poetry in prose and the old world in the new: This from a reflection on the sculpture Rudderstone in the Wellington Botanic Gardens where amongst ‘Pacific’blue marble, there are ‘some small, irregularly shaped pieces of black…They are pieces of the Old World that came with us.’

Joan Fleming’s Failed Love Poems are energetically engaged with language and movement and the strange corners and shores of love that can hardly be articulated, but find articulation here: ‘Un-husbanded nuisance fire. Or grovel, or chisel down, chisel down’– from ‘The Invention of Enough.’

And finally the big excitement for me was a new book of poems by Kathleen Jamie, The Bonniest Company. This from ‘Arbour’:

…May is again pegged out

across the whole northern hemisphere, and today

is my birthday. Sudden hailstorms sting

this provisional asylum. We are not done yet.

Lynn Davidson

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