Poetry Shelf Review: Roger Horrocks and Song of the Ghost in the Machine – as you readwalk you feel invigorated, refreshed, and ready to write

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Song of the Ghost in the Machine

Roger Horrocks

Victoria University Press



I confessed the day the Ockham NZ Book Award short lists came out I had not read this book as it felt too close to something I had in my head. Truth is I have finished a draft that I am leaving for a decent period of time before lifting it into something that works. The link with my starting point is tenuous. But it loomed large at the time.

Roger’s new collection comes out of walking. Walking in the physical world, walking through books, ideas, memory. Each section is prefaced by the biggest stack of quotations I have seen in ages in a poetry book. If ever! –  when I think further. It means there are two different reading approaches at work here. You can go shopping within the quotes and find the ones that stick.

Like a little reading map for the reader pedestrian. The sources are eclectic. Surprising.

Then there is the poetry, and this is infused with the way age changes things. For some poets, it prompts a new alertness to the world, to what matters. Roger is absorbing the world as he walks and leaving shiny traces of it in the poems.

‘This is the world I saw.’

For some poets, age is the body changing, under threat, slower. Death seems closer. Death seems to push and nudge the poems and make itself felt. For Roger, it is there in a health scare, in the passing of loved ones.

‘The body supplies the beat’

Mostly the poems are made of long lines in thick stanzas and generate the fluency of walking. One poem, ‘One Hundred Descriptions,’ amasses aphorisms, miniature thoughts, like miniature steps.

‘a square peg in the round hole of the world’

Throughout the book, as you meander and read, sidetrack and read, loiter and read, certain things leap out at you. Just like when you walk in the physical world and see the cat asleep in the flowerpot.

‘Like shoehorn, a mind is meant to ease you/ into the world, but his makes a poor fit.’

‘My cargo is close to bursting – years of sights/ and smells, ideas and anxieties, mistakes and regrets -/ but for the moment I’m still mobile, still fossicking.’


What changes the poetry when death seems that little bit closer? With this collection it invigorates it. The ideas about self and writing and how we fit in the world. How we belong. How we make attachments. How we can use words to make shadows on the page like Plato’s cave.

In his note at the back of the book, Roger talks about poetry. In my view, when I scan the decades of NZ poetry I have read, I believe poetry does anything and everything. It busts out of compartments. Not all poetry is preoccupied with self (Roger proposes much is), yet find me a poem where traces of the poet don’t flourish like tiny signatures (ah begone Barthes!). Tiny alluring signatures that reflect bias. Bias that snags on ideas, physical views, opinions, musicality, experience, poetic choices, subject preferences.

This terrific poetry collection is like walking in the world because as you readwalk you feel invigorated, refreshed, and ready to write.

Congratulations on a well deserved spot on the short list, Roger.


VUP page


The Ockham NZ Poetry short list- two reviews, an interview and a book in my bag

I am heading off to Wellington this morning to go to A Circle of Laureates, the Lauris Edmond prize event and do a smidgeon of reading in between. Thought I would share these first:


How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes Chris Tse, Auckland University Press

Chris Tse is a writer, musician and actor whose poetry first appeared in AUP New Posts 4 (Auckland University Press, 2011). He resides in Wellington, his home town.

Chris’s debut collection, How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, responds to a moment in history not so much by narrating that history but by installing a chorus of voices. He takes an event from 1905 when Lionel Terry went hunting for a Chinaman in Haining Street, Wellington and ended up murdering Joe Kum Yung. Within the opening pages, the chilling event is situated in a wider context where laws proscribe the alienness that situates  Chinese as outsiders. This is what gets under your skin as you read.

The poems draw upon and draw in notions of distance, defeat, guilt and forgiveness. There are the unsettled imaginings of what it is to be home, to be at home and to be out of home to the extent that home becomes difficult and different. Mostly it is a matter of death (and casting back into life) whereby phantoms stalk and cry about what might have been and what is: ‘You spend your thoughts drowning in your family-/ missing from this vista- and contemplate a return with nothing to show/ for your absence.’

The collection harvests shifting forms, voices and tones that promote poetry as mood, state of mind, emotional residue. Yes, there is detailed evidence of history but this is not a realist account, a story told in such a way. Instead the poetic spareness, the drifting phantom voices give stronger presence to things that are much harder to put into words. How to be dead, for example. How to find the co-ordinates of estrangement, of that which is unbearably lost and is hard to tally (family, home, what matters in life). On page four you move from a matter-of-fact representation of the law to page five and the wife in Canton (‘you carry her bones in your body’). Two disparate but equally potent aches.

For the rest of the review see here




From an interview I did with David Eggleton last year:

I love the title of your new collection (The Conch Shell, Otago University Press). The blurb suggests that this collection ‘calls to the scattered tribes of contemporary New Zealand.’ What tribes do you belong to? What literary tribes? How does the word ‘contemporary’ modify things?

Yes, I’m blowing my own (conch) trumpet at sunrise. That title refers to tide-lines of life, to surf-like sounds, to gathering good vibrations, to gods of the sea who, clarion-like, lull the waves, and to the summer of shakes, the year of quakes. And so on, to the final burnout of the run-ragged consumer. The rest is the tribal outcast, and everything you cannot pin down, or ascribe a bar code to.

In fact, the word ‘tribe’ is fraught. I think James K. Baxter brought it into the literary realm. My own tribal background is distinctly heterogeneous rather than Fonterra-homogenous, but if I look around at my contemporaries, poets and otherwise, I see most of them making it up as they go along. A poem tests a proposition; it doesn’t always prove it.


These new poems offer shifting tones, preoccupations, rhythms. What discoveries did you make about poetry as you wrote? The world? Interior or external?

My poems like to dwell on the silver wake of a container ship, or the wet sand beneath the upturned hull of a dinghy, or the half-seen, the overheard. Poets re-arrange, but they have duties of care. X.J. Kennedy has pointed out that: ‘The world is full of poets with languid wrenches who don’t bother to take the last six turns on their bolts.’

It’s been five years since my last poetry collection Time of the Icebergs appeared, and one reason my collections have been regularly spaced that far apart is the need for more elbow-grease and line-tightening to get the burnish just so.

The poet’s mind, like anyone else’s is made up of reptilian substrate, limbic empathy and neo-cortical rationality. These shape your reveries and hopefully together lift them out of banality. Our ideas are dreams, styles, superstitions. We rationalise our temperaments, draw curtains over our windows, but poems carry an anarchic charge that reveals the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

A poet is in the business of the unsayable being said, showing you fear in a handful of dust. A poet is amanuensis to the subconscious ceaselessly murmuring, and indeed to the planetary hum, the gravitational pull of the earth, the wobble of placental jellyfish in the womb — anything alive, mindless and gooey.


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

Every poem resonates on its own wavelength, but I found constructing an immediate elegiac response to my father’s death one of the most turbulent. A bit like getting to grips with a storm, with a howling wind that has shape and substance.


Returning to the notion of detail, I see the accumulation of things in your poems as an overlay of highways to elsewhere whether heart, issues, ideas, fancy, memory. Yet the things also pulsate as things in their own right. What draws you to ‘the thisness of things’ (the blurb)?

Things accumulate in my poems in almost haptic fashion, wrestled there like sculptural ingredients. They accumulate, as in the random haphazard assemblages of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, built out of found objects in the streets. Yes, I want to acknowledge the ‘thisness’ of things, but not in the sense of ‘property’. Rather, in the sense of: he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.


For the complete interview see here


Tim-FB 9780473288396-TU

Tim Upperton, The Night We Ate The Baby HauNui Press, 2014

Tim Upperton’s debut poetry collection, A House on Fire, was published by Steele Roberts in 2009. Since then, his poetry has been published in numerous journals and he has won awards for a number of them. The poems for this new collection were written with the assistance of a Doctoral Scholarship from Massey University of New Zealand, so perhaps they form/formed part of his doctoral submission. Tim will be reading as part of the Haunui Press ‘Deep Friend Poetry Reading’ series at Vic Books on 26th March. Details here.

This latest book is unlike any other collection I have seen in New Zealand; chiefly in terms of the measure of discomfort. The forms are various, scooping an edgy wit into prose blocks, villanelle, triplets, couplets and freer patterns. Yet there is connective glue at work here, and that is what makes this collection stand out. I think it comes down to voice (whether or not it is the personal voice of the poet doesn’t really matter) because the voice steering the poems is sharp, forthright, witty, edgy, grumpy. It unsettles. It keeps you on your toes. On the back of the book, Ashleigh Young suggests that ‘[t]hese willfully, calmly disagreeable poems have tenderness and courage at their heart.’ I would agree. Therein lies the pleasure of reading these poems; there is more to the brittle edginess than meets the initial eye.

The first poem, ‘Avoid,’ very clearly announces that this is a poet who loves language, that is unafraid of rhyme and rhythm working arm in arm. The poem is a miniature explosion of sound effects — with sliding assonance, bounding consonants, near rhyme and sumptuous aural connections. It brought to mind the refrain in Don McGlashan’s song,  ‘Marvellous Year,’ and Bill Manhire’s glorious ‘1950s’ in the use of rhythm and rhyme, and aural trapeze work that is ear defying. Whereas Don’s song represents a potted portrait of the world in all its warts and glory (in a marvellous year), and Bill’s poem is a nostalgic recuperation of things, Tim sets up the collection’s  negative disposition and itemises things to avoid!

For the rest of the review see here


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Roger Horrocks Song in the Ghost Machine

I haven’t read this book! Last year I picked it up to review then found something about it was very close to a fragile starting point I had for a book in my head. I can’t talk about poems I am writing until they are written. I didn’t want to scare my starting point off so left in the pile to read.

Now that I am hard at work writing about NZ women’s poetry, my starting point is in a little holding bay where it may or may not survive. It has been there for over a decade though and has moved to second place in  a queue.

So I am throwing caution to the wind and taking this book to read on the plane.







My thoughts: 2016 Ockham NZ Book Award Poetry short list

Congratulations to all those who make the short lists! Especially in a year that was larger than a year.

Here is the short list for poetry, see below for other categories.

How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press)
The Night We Ate the Baby, by Tim Upperton (Haunui Press)
Song of the Ghost in the Machine, by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press)
The Conch Trumpet, by David Eggleton (Otago University Press)
Would this be my list? No! But that doesn’t mean a thing. Book Awards will always reflect the predilections of the judges. And there are some strong collections here that I have reviewed and loved. Great to see Chris’s debut collection make the cut.
Good to see a small press make it along with the big presses who continue to show an admiral devotion to poetry.
Whom do I mourn? Emma Neale’s extraordinary collection, Tender Machines. Ahh!
I haven’t read many of the novels that made it but how I adored Anna Smaill’s The Chimes that did not. Sorry to be a party pooper on that one.
And how good to see Fiona Farrell and Lynn Jenner make the non-fiction list. I reviewed both those books on the blog and thought they were standout examples of how we can write about the world, catastrophe, home.
Fiction plus poetry equals one woman out of eight.  No women poets. Does this mean the men wrote all the best books in the past year? No way!
Is NZ literature in fine heart? Utterly yes. Astonishing books missed the long lists in both poetry and fiction. We are publishing such quality writing it makes judging almost impossible for Book Award Judges.
For those that missed out, good books have a life beyond book awards. Astonishing books are bigger than book awards. Remember that.
For those that have been picked, enjoy the well-deserved moment, then let the white noise settle and get on with what really matters. Writing.
The 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalists are: 
The Back of His Head, by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press)
Chappy, by Patricia Grace (Penguin Random House)
Coming Rain, by Stephen Daisley (Text Publishing)
The Invisible Mile, by David Coventry (Victoria University Press)
How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press)
The Night We Ate the Baby, by Tim Upperton (Haunui Press)
Song of the Ghost in the Machine, by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press)
The Conch Trumpet, by David Eggleton (Otago University Press)
General Non-Fiction
Maurice Gee: Life and Work, by Rachel Barrowman (Victoria University Press)
The Villa at the Edge of the Empire: One Hundred Ways to Read a City, by Fiona Farrell (Penguin Random House)
Māori Boy: A Memoir of Childhood, by Witi Ihimaera (Penguin Random House)
Lost and Gone Away, by Lynn Jenner (Auckland University Press)
Illustrated Non-Fiction
Te Ara Puoro: A Journey into the World of Māori Music, by Richard Nunns (Potton and Burton)
New Zealand Photography Collected, by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press)
Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney, Aroha Harris (Bridget Williams Books)
Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s, by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press)
The Fiction category is judged by distinguished writer Owen Marshall CNZM, Wellington bookseller and reviewer Tilly Lloyd, and former Director of the Auckland Writers Festival and former Creative New Zealand senior literature adviser Jill Rawnsley.
The Poetry Prize is judged by former Auckland University Press publisher Elizabeth Caffin MNZM, Dr Paul Millar, of the University of Canterbury, and poet and University of Auckland academic Dr Selina Tusitala Marsh.
The General Non-Fiction Prize is judged by Metro Editor-At-Large Simon Wilson, Professor Lydia Wevers, literary historian, critic and director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, and Dr Jarrod Gilbert, a former Book Awards winner for Patched: A History of Gangs in New Zealand, of the University of Canterbury.
The Illustrated Non-Fiction Prize is judged by former publisher Jane Connor, publisher of the magisterial The Trees of New Zealand, which won the Book of the Year award in 2012, Associate Professor Linda Tyler, Director of the Centre for Art Studies at The University of Auckland, and Leonie Hayden, the editor of Mana magazine.
The winners (including of the four Best First Book Awards) will be announced at a ceremony on Tuesday May 10 2016, held as the opening night event of the Auckland Writers Festival. The awards ceremony is open to the public for the first time. Tickets to the event can be purchased via Ticketmaster once festival bookings open on Friday 18 March.

Poetry Shelf, Poet’s Choice: Sam Sampson gets choosing

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An online publication that I’m still engaged with, and keeps giving, was the collection: A Festschrift for Tony Frazer, which celebrated the 64th birthday of Tony Frazer, the editor of Shearsman. As one of many writers with a poetry book published through Shearsman Books, and poems published within Shearsman Magazine, I follow, revisit, and greatly admire Tony and his Shearsman imprint. As outlined on the publication homepage, Tony is one of the great poetry editors of our time, publishing more than 300 writers; but more importantly, encouraging and validating the writing process through championing new writers, writers in translation, a Classics series, and working tirelessly to promote poetry. Here is an insightful quote that sums Tony up perfectly:

‘Tony Frazer must be held to account for he is a publisher who resolutely fails to be everything a publisher should be: he is enthusiastic, literate and does not concern himself with projected sales figures. What can be done to stop him? Very little, I fear’ Marius Kociejowski


Over the years I’ve purchased volumes from Shearsman, such as Gael Turnbull’s There are words…Collected Poems, discovered Gustaf Sobin, Theodore Enslin, Anthony Hawley, Frances Presley, Anne-Marie Albiach, Pablo de Rokha…and at this moment, are reading poems by one my favourite poets, the late Lee Harwood Collected Poems.


On the local front, this year I had the privilege of being part of a poetry reading with Roger Horrocks Song of the Ghost in the Machine (Victoria UP, 2015) – and hear first hand the meditative ghost ambling to-and-fro, from word-to-world. From what I understand, it was Roger’s first poetry reading in 30 years. A great occasion and a great book!

Another highlight this year was being invited by Michele Leggott to be part of the Six Pack Sound #2 series at the nzepc. The second series included recordings by Stephanie Christie, Makyla Curtis & Hannah Owen-Wright, Doc Drumheller, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Jack Ross. Thanks to Michele Leggott, Brian Flaherty and Tim Page for making this happen.


Sam Sampson

Poetry Shelf, poet’s choice; Murray Edmond makes some picks

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Mais pourquoi entre parenthèses? Four Highly Mentionable Items from the Poetry Year

A long poem, a magazine, a collected poems and a set of translations.


I had the pleasure of giving the champagne-cracking speech to launch Roger HorrocksSong of the Ghost in the Machine (Victoria UP, 2015) in the first half of 2015. This is a single poem of nearly 70 pages. Lovely to read a long philosophical, meditative poem, which pays homage to Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (first century BC).

The third issue of Ika from the Manukau Institute of Technology Faculty of Creative Arts is edited by Anne Kennedy. It includes prose and fine arts design and photography, but poetry is the mainstay of the magazine. MIT writing students are featured, but you will also find work by Tusiata Avia, Courtney Sina Meredith, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Chris Tse, Anna Jackson, Emma Neale, Kent McCarter, and Michael Steven among a host of others. Attractive production.

Collected poems tend to go on-line these days (eg. Kendrick Smithyman’s), but David Howard’s editing of the poetry of Iain Lonie (1932-1988) has produced a well-ordered, hard-cover volume from Otago University Press: A Place to Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie (2015). There’s a Preface, a Chronology, A Memoir and an Essay to bind the collection together, with Sources and Notes and Indexes of Titles and of First Lines. The layout is generous. Lonie’s output at just under 300 pages was not large and it is here contextualized and clarified by excellent editing.

Pam Brown’s selection of poems Alibis (Societe Jamais-Jamais: Sydney), translated into French by her partner Jane Zemiro, actually appeared in 2014, but I wanted to mention it for Kiwi readers. The poems are selected from four earlier volumes by Brown and include the poem ‘One Day in Auckland/Un jour à Auckland with its lines:


I’ve woken up early

In Auckland,

New Zealand (Aotearoa)

(why bracket that?)


“Mais pourquoi entre parenthèses’ indeed. Nice to read an Australian poet waking us up. There is a Preface from Brown and Zemiro about translation. An earlier version of this Preface appeared in Ka Mate Ka Ora: A New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics, No. 11 (2013) www.nzepc.auckland.ac/kmko/index11.asp

For the poet, the translated poem gives the poet an alibi, ‘slightly displaced,’ having been somewhere else at the time of the translation.

Murray Edmond