Poetry and music go together like candles and churches, and what’s better than poetry and music? Poetry and music in the cavernous St Peters church on a stormy night. Lōemis Festival’s recent event Epilogue, born out of the mind of Festival Artistic Director Andrew Laking, brought together some of the city’s finest ensemble musicians and a murderer’s row of local poets for an evening of original composition that was at times ecstatic, somber, thought-provoking, soothing and so much more. Local wordsmiths Nick Ascroft, Chris Tse, Rebecca Hawkes, Ruby Solly and Harry Ricketts were all given the opportunity to write and deliver original poems in this reimagined requiem mass and their words the space and scope they deserved.
The event page promised an echo of the original idea, that follows the same rise, fall and atmosphere, and it delivered, interspersing music and the spoken word. The event begun with a composition from the ensemble and they punctuated every poet’s performance, creating room for breach and reflection and time for the poems to wash over the crowd and reset the mood for the next poet. The church was dark and moody and still throughout, while this made for the perfect audience experience it made it impossible to take any notes during the show, as a result I’m just going to gush about all the wonderful performers who took the stage.
Nick Ascroft was the first poet to take to the pulpit. He delivered two new poems that were personal and inventive, hilarious and heartbreaking. While I’ve been a fan of Nick’s wit on the page for years it was great to have the opportunity to see him read in this context, not only did his poems set the tone for the evening but his opener ‘You Will Find Me Much Changed’ has been lounging about in my head ever since. Next up was everyone’s favourite poet crush Chris Tse. Dressed in dapper attire apparently inspired by a fancy can of water, Chris, much like Nick used repetition to build his sermon, like a mantra, an incantation. It reverberated off the stained-glass windows and when Chris finished with his piece, entitled ‘Persistence is futile’, I got so upset I have to wait until 2022 for his third collection.
Rebecca Hawkes was next, accidentally dressed as Kath from Kath and Kim due to a wardrobe malfunction but it didn’t matter. Rebecca is the type of poet tailor-made for an event like this, she can conjure imagery that spans the grotesque to the sublime and she has a performance style that colours those images so vividly you feel fully submerged in her world. Speaking of complex other worlds, Ruby Solly is one of the masters of weaving them together and that was on full display in her performance. Ruby also played taonga pūoro with the ensemble before her reading just to remind the audience how talented she is. The last poet of the evening was Harry Ricketts, whose Selected Poems is out in the world right now. Harry’s ‘The Song Sings the News of the World’ closed out the evening, and while it wasn’t necessarily the most complex or challenging poem of the evening, it was the perfect ending, prompting all those watching to look forward and wonder, leaving the audience with a sense of hope.
Overall it was the perfect evening, poetry and music together as they should be, in a venue built for ritual. Epilogue is the type of event that showcases what poetry can be when it’s not confined, stretching it and moulding it into something unexpected, the type of event Andrew and his VERB co-director Clare Mabey excel at producing. I sincerely hope Epilogue doesn’t live up to its namesake and we get to see it again in one form or another.
Music by Nigel Collins and Andrew Laking, in collaboration with Simon Christie and Maaike Beekman. New texts written and read by Chris Tse, Rebecca Hawkes, Harry Ricketts, Ruby Solly, and Nick Ascroft. With Dan Yeabsley (reeds), Tristan Carter (violin), and Dayle Jellyman (keys).
Jordan Hamel is a Pōneke-based writer, poet and performer. He was the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Slam champion and represented NZ at the World Poetry Slam Champs in the US in 2019. He is the co-editor of Stasis Journal and co-editor of a forthcoming NZ Climate Change Poetry Anthology from Auckland University Press. He is a 2021 Michael King Writer-in-Residence and has words published in The Spinoff, Newsroom, Poetry New Zealand, Sport, Turbine, Landfall, and elsewhere.
Jordan Hamel’s poem ‘You’re not a has-been, you’re a never was!’
Paula Green, from Cookhouse, Auckland University Press, 1997
My theme-season introductions seem like miniature self confessions on life and poetry. Crikey! I always have much to say about food and poetry because I love cooking and I love writing. My first book Cookhouse got scathing reviews either for being too domestic or forbeing too experimental. I walked around the supermarket on a Sunday morning reading the first review of my first book saying OMG OMG OMG. It was my first lesson as a writer: leave reviews with the person who wrote them. Just get on with what you love. A few weeks later I opened the Listener and there was a photograph of Cookhouse on the recipe page with a Marcella Hazan cookbook ( I loved her recipes!). Plus one of my poems, sitting on the page like a recipe. That was my second lesson as a writer. Your books and poetry find their way into surprising places and you will never know how your poetry touches people. Although sometimes you get an inkling: a stranger might walk up to you, or send an email or a card, and surprise you (in a good way!).
I can’t keep food out of my poetry and I am equally drawn to writers with similar intent. It is one reason I am such a fan of Nina Mingya Powle’s poetry. Her poems lead in multiple directions but the sensual hooks are often sparked by food. Ian Wedde is the same. I adore The Commonplace Odes. It has always mattered what food I put in my body, and it is a bit the same with with poetry. I want to cook a meal that tastes good and I want poetry that satisfies my reading tastebuds whether I am writing or reviewing. In fact don’t call me a reviewer please. And I am not actually very kind. I simply love reading poetry and sharing my engagements. Just as I love cooking a meal every night for my family.
The poems selected are not so much about food but revel in a presence of food to varying degrees. Grateful thanks to the publishers and poets who continue to support my season of themes.
A mountain of runner beans
to top and tail and de-string.
She decides to do it for them: her sons
so they will be eaten this evening
sliced into green splinters
with pink seeds showing through.
Easier to sit than stand. Her best profile
towards the door when her son appears.
She wants to disguise how content she is.
The stringy edges, tops and tails, in a dish
the beans growing, like a mountain of shoes
later to be wrapped in tinfoil
roughly divided into two.
No one else in the family will eat them.
In an article it says they are underrated
almost despised as a vegetable
underestimated on two counts
or three: first the vigorous way
they climb, clamber to the sun
second they are rich in iron
and last and best: this contentment
so rarely found, except in
a painting of a woman pouring from a jug
someone bathing someone in a tub
this mountainous-seeming task
calming with each stroke of the knife.
served from across the seas
in a tin or a jar, fished from suitcases
with grandmotherly dimples
little walnuts – xiao he tao
proudly, good for brain.
except neurons are firing
in staccato, half-
they manage xie xie and dutifully
I eat them.
I forget why I ask for these –
the carnage of shells
scraps of brown meat
and a strange invasion staged
on my tongue – slow
and clumsy muscle.
I am quick to rise – you do not get to comment on what’s in my lunch box –
but just as quick to pick
the yolks of my too-dry lotus mooncakes –
of a world in hieroglyphs.
and when I have counted
waves of sleep – yi, er, san –
I don’t dream in the same vowels.
what can I bring back for you?
her smile like furls of steaming jasmine tea
amidst clamouring children
hawking their wants like roadside wares
or suitcase wheels clicking on concrete
destined for smog and skyscrapers.
I always ask for my little walnuts.
*Little walnut or xiao he tao is a particular kind of Chinese walnut with a distinct sweet-salty flavour.
from A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, eds Paula Morris and Alison Wong, Auckland University Press, 2021
from A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, eds Paula Morris and Alison Wong, Auckland University Press, 2021
to Claire Beynon
A cob loaf rests on a surface,
perhaps a table, an altar, a jetty,
that reaches over a shoreline toward dark water
and the approaching edge of night.
Out there an indigo quiet where the sky lowers to sea,
clouds shouldering weight of storm to come;
a hint of beach, airborne flicks of white,
where seabirds swoop for fish and scraps.
On this side of a sill,
the bread, and a bowl of tawny nectarines
occupy foreground that’s human with light,
with hearth-glow in the corner,
tended against incoming cold.
The bread is warm from the oven,
the fruit ripe, and the room that extends
from the canvas edge into my lived space
where the painting hangs, included as offering
to the sombre air,
to anyone who comes to this threshold, empty.
The news is early or his clock is slow,
so he grabs his mug of tea and pops
a biscuit in his pocket,
the top pocket of a faded old coat.
It’s a wreck of a thing, this coat of his.
a shamefully limp and grubby article,
but he wears it through the news and Campbell Live
and on into the night,
and he wears it when he leaves his little flat
and slips up the lane and out into the park
and lights a cigarette
(his skinny nine-o’clocker
and the last of the day).
And he smells the smells of mown grass and woodsmoke,
and he walks across the park towards the lights,
the lights of the houses on the hill,
secular stars of silver and orange,
and he walks beneath the frosty stars themselves,
this unmarried, unmended man,
this unmarried, not-unhappy Earthling,
A Super Wine forgotten in his pocket.
from Pocket Edition, Victoria University Press, 2009
If you love me you’ll buy Bluff oysters and cook asparagus. Even though I don’t like either.
for Kirsten Holst, for feeding me many good things
and for Alison and Peter, for their Bluff oysters and asparagus
When I am no longer who I was
I can only hope that I will be loved by someone
so much that every day during Bluff oyster season
they will buy me a dozen Bluff oysters.
Even though they don’t like Bluff oysters
they will buy them for me
and every day I will exclaim
“I can’t even remember the last time I had Bluff oysters!”;
they will nod at the extreme length of time it has been.
When I am no longer who I was
and when Bluff oyster season is over
I can only hope that I will be loved by someone so much
they will cook me freshly picked asparagus every day.
Even though they don’t like asparagus
they will grow it for me and pick it for me
and lightly steam it
so that I can relish it served with hollandaise sauce
(although some days more lazily served with butter and lemon).
I will eat it with my fingers
and let the sauce (or butter) dribble down my chin;
no one will mind or tell me to be less messy
it will just be moments of edible joy.
In reality I don’t like Bluff oysters (or any oysters)
and I can’t stand asparagus (the taste and texture are disturbing);
I can only hope that maybe someone will love me enough
to buy and cook me the things that I love
even though they hate them, even though I won’t remember.
the great pumpkin war
standing in the kitchen crying
beaten by a vegetable
thought by now it would be easier
people have suggested this (people i trust)
the myth of progress
you do something every day it gets easier
in reality each day the dirt accrues
it multiplies between cupboard doors
i am running out of resources
i am getting further & further into
the ten-year warranty on the fridge compressor
one day soon i will have to pick up the knife
& address the pumpkin in the room
bought so cheaply from the farmers’ market
now growing larger by the day
taking up all the bench space
i fear for the fruit bowl
my mother says to drop it from a height
she throws hers down the stone garden steps
my previous attempt resulted in
20 minutes lost to searching for an unscathed pumpkin
trying to break open a pumpkin at night
is like starting a winter war in russia
i am letting everything get out of control
i sleep knowing it is getting worse
i do not think i can win at this
i do not think i can carry on in any capacity
from AUP New Poets 7, ed Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press, 2020
The Cheese Scone Recipe as Promised
What’s the secret, people ask,
why do your students return
year after year to your class?
Cheese scones, I say, crisp
on the outside, soft inside
like all good characters. First,
turn up the heat, 200 degrees
should do it. Next, sift two cups
of self-rising flour, holding the sieve
high, letting the flour fall like snow
in the air, then add a heaped half
teaspoon each of salt, mustard powder
and a good pinch of cayenne for a lick
of fire. Stir and rub in 30 grams
of butter. If in a hurry, as I usually am,
you can grate the butter or cheat
with the food processor,
but do not go all the way, stop
at the crumbly stage, add 75 grams
of grated cheese, then beat a large egg,
with about 75 mils of buttermilk,
(if you have none, add lemon juice to milk,
rest it for ten minutes). Breaking
the drought pour into the dry ingredients,
mixing first with a knife, then lightly
with your hands to bring the soft dough
together. If it seems too dry
add more buttermilk, but like
it’s a newborn and precious, go easy
with your handling, remembering
scones and poems need a light touch.
Cool hands, my mother said,
though mine have always been hot.
Roll the dough out in a rough circle,
not too thin, about 2.5 cm thick.
With students due any minute,
I usually take the lazy way, divide
it roughly into 8 triangles but you might
be wanting to impress your mother
or daughter-in-law, and have the time
and the aesthetic sense for fluted cutters.
Appearance improves the taste
so brush the tops with milk, sprinkle
on a little grated cheese, and a dusting
of cayenne. Bake on a high shelf
for about 15 minutes till golden
and irresistible. Making scones
is not dissimilar to crafting a poem,
you need to pay attention to detail,
measuring, mixing, letting in air,
but there the recipe ends.
What I haven’t talked of can not
like metaphor, be quantified, the secret is
to bring to the process, a little of you.
the children open their
lunch boxes to each other
a ham sandwich
for a Fijian fried egg and three cassava sticks
a mini feta quiche
for a South Indian roti parcel stuffed
with cumin and okra
a tub of yogurt
for a Middle Eastern pouch of semolina
sautéed in ghee and cardomens
a celery stick
for a Tongan plantation ladyfinger banana
a juice box for
fresh Kiribati island toddy
the wooden decks approve
their slats on standby to suck evidence
of sharing and spit them into the crawl space
beneath the salivating joists
it’s the allergies
the food policies
the way fear feeds us all
P r o p e r t i e s
You’ll need oil – For your forehead on Ash Wednesday, for the insides and outsides of your palms. For sore inner ears and lifeless hair. For removing the evil eye – that’s the most important. Though not one in the family knows the ritual, better to be with, than without.
Grapes and leaves – For your rice and pinenuts, for your grape jelly.
And ash – For the grape jelly – vine cinders to be precise. For holy crosses over the front doors of your houses or workplaces. For the bottoms of incense holders – hubris to clear it out.
Rose petals – For gravestones, but mostly for the preserve that fits into a spoon followed by icy water.
Water – From the priest, for drinking in the first month of the year and sprinkling in every room. For keeping in the fridge thereafter. For putting chamomile into – tea or warm compresses.
Garlic – For everything. For mashing up and applying with honey to sores. For rubbing on styes. For wrapping in bread and swallowing whole when feverish. For shooing away evil by saying the word alone – along with a spitting sound.
from Ithaca Island Bay Leaves: A Mythistorima, Seraph Press, 2009
1.2 To the cookbook
Turning east, I drove towards blue grey
Mountains down which cloud crawled
From summits which were already sky. High in it
A glare like grubby porcelain told me that morning
Was advanced. The nibbled winter paddocks were over-
Written in a language no one had ever taught me:
Glottal, almost choking, wet. Lines
Of leafless shelter-belt enwrapped the shorter
Rows of berryfruit trellises in need
Of pruning. My destination: an art gallery.
My mission: to speak about art and poetry.
It was going to be all over before I got there.
Quintus Horatius Flaccus, help me
In my hour of need, help me turn my back
on landscape that wants to be art, on poetry with feet
Of clay. The lovely world has everything I need,
It has my kids, my sweetheart, my friends, it has a new book
With mouth-watering risotto recipes in it,
The kind of plump rice you might have relished,
Horace, in the Sabine noon, yellowed with saffron.
‘The zen poet’ is another of you, he wrote a poem
About making stew in the desert which changed my life.
A good cookbook is as good as a book of poems
Any day, because it can’t be more pretentious
Than the produce you savour with friends as night falls.
from The Common Place Odes, Auckland University Press, 2001
When I was smaller than the family dog,
Dad would tell Mum
that he was taking me to kōhanga.
Then we’d go to the bakery
and get as many custard pies
as we could handle.
Park up by the river,
listen to the radio a while.
He’d light one up
as fat as the mighty brown trout,
captured and killed
and lull me to sleep
with a puku full of custard
in his red van
with all his windows up.
Now I am grown
and you ask me to explain something you said.
My eyes glaze
and all I can see is that
pastry flakes resting
in the corners of my sleeping mouth.
from Tōku Pāpā, Victoria University Press, 2021
Diane Brown is a novelist, memoirist, and poet who runs Creative Writing Dunedin, teaching fiction, memoir and poetry. She is the Poetry Editor for ‘The Mix’ in the Otago Daily Times. Her latest book is a poetic novella, Every Now and Then I Have Another Child, Otago University Press 2020.
Geoff Cochrane is the author of 19 collections of poetry, mostly recently Chosen (2020), two novels, and Astonished Dice: Collected Short Stories (2014). In 2009 he was awarded the Janet Frame Prize for Poetry, in 2010 the inaugural Nigel Cox Unity Books Award, and in 2014 an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award.
Rhys Feeney is a high school teacher in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can buy Rhys’ debut collection, “soyboy,” as part of AUP New Poets 7
Paula Harris lives in Palmerston North, where she writes and sleeps in a lot, because that’s what depression makes you do. She won the 2018 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize and the 2017 Lilian Ida Smith Award. Her writing has been published in various journals, including The Sun, Hobart, Passages North, New Ohio Review and Aotearotica. She is extremely fond of dark chocolate, shoes and hoarding fabric. website: www.paulaharris.co.nz | Twitter: @paulaoffkilter | Instagram: @paulaharris_poet | Facebook: @paulaharrispoet]
Vana Manasiadis is Greek-New Zealand poet and translator born in Te Whanganui-a-Tara and based in Tāmaki Makaurau after many years living in Kirihi Greece. She is 2021 Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at Te Whare Wanaga o Waitaha Canterbury University. Her most recent book was The Grief Almanac: A Sequel.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer, mostly of poetry and fiction. Her poetry collection ‘Bones in the Octagon’ was published by Makaro Press in 2015.
Neema Singh is a poet from Christchurch of Gujarati Indian descent. Her work appears in Ko Aotearoa Tātou: We Are New Zealand(2020) and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand (2021) and she is currently working on her first collection of poetry, a series of poems unfolding the layers of culture, identity and history contained within ordinary moments. Neema is an experienced secondary school English teacher and holds a Master of Creative Writing from The University of Auckland.
Elizabeth Smither ‘s new collection of stories: ‘The Piano Girls’ will be published in May by Quentin Wilson Publishing.
Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Starling and Sport, among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā, published in Februrary 2021, is her first book.
Mere Taito is a poet living and working in Kirikiriroa.She is interested in the way poetry can be used to revitalise minority Indigenous languages like Fäeag Rotuạm ta.
Joy Tong picks wildflowers from neighbours’ fences, pets strangers’ dogs and chases stories in the streets. She’s a student, musician and writer from Tāmaki Makaurau and her other works can be found in Landfall, Mayhem and Starling, as well as A Clear Dawn, an anthology for NZ-Asian voices.
Ian Wedde was born in Blenheim, New Zealand, in 1946. He lives with his wife Donna Malane in Auckland. ‘To the cookbook’ is from a sequence called The Commonplace Odes, published as a book by Auckland University Press in 2001. He was New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2011.
Epilogue is a new work that follows the form of a requiem mass, minus the death and liturgy.
Five writers accompanied by an ensemble of musicians explore a series of unrelated events, evoking ideas around transition, inevitability, rest, activity, optimism and infinity.
Music by Nigel Collins (Flight of the Conchords / Congress of Animals) and Andrew Laking, in collaboration with Simon Christie and Maaike Beekman. New texts written and read by Chris Tse, Rebecca Hawkes, Harry Ricketts, Ruby Solly, and Nick Ascroft. With Dan Yeabsley (reeds), Tristan Carter (violin), and Dayle Jellyman (keys).
What to Expect To make Epilogue, we took the structure and sense of a requiem mass, then pulled it apart it and filled it with contemporary language and music. What we’re left with is an echo of the original idea, that follows the same rise, fall and atmosphere, but speaks to more recent events, all of which are different and personal, but connected in a broader sense. Imagine a secular order of service that alternates between music and spoken word and you’re half way there!
Who’s involved? Nigel Collins is a playwright and musician who is best known for his work with Flight of the Conchords (Orchestra of One) and Congress of Animals. He combines with a fantastic ensemble of musicians, including bassist Simon Christie (Aurora IV), Dayle Jellyman and reeds maestro Dan Yeabsley (The Troubles). The texts have been put together by a standout collection of writers, featuring many of Wellington’s best – for more info, click on the artist profiles on this page.
Some poetry books catch you on the first page and you get goosebumps and your breathing changes and you know this is a book for you. I felt like that when I first read Alison Glenny’s sublime The Farewell Tourist with its luminous connections to Antarctica. There is something about poetry that takes risks, that never loses touch with heart, is unafraid of ideas, and is able to sing on the line. You just want to camp up in the book for days, with a thermos of tea, and all your devices unplugged.
I felt the same way about Bill Manhire’s extraordinary poem ‘Erebus Voices’ (Lifted, Victoria University Press, 2005). You can read the poem at The Spin Off here and listen to Bill read the poem here. Thinking of Alison’s book and Bill’s poem, I knew ice had to be one of my themes.
Ice in poems: it might be a hint, a hurt, an underlying coldness, an icy image, a heart freeze, a trip to the snow-capped mountain, a melting ice-cream, an avalanche.
I am so grateful to all the poets who have supported my extended thematic poetry gatherings. Thank you.
The Poetry Shelf Theme Season runs every Friday until mid August.
In the morning the mountains beckon
Blue and clear like bells; glaciers feed upon
Light pouring from heaven brighter than ice-stone.
Ruth France (1913-1968), from No Traveller Returns: the selected poems of Ruth France, Cold Hub Press, 2020
Twelve poems about ice
Some afternoons a fog rolled down the hallway. On others, the staircase groaned with moisture. A finger laid carelessly on a bannister dislodged a ledge of rime. She lifted the hem of her dress to avoid the damp in the passageway, wore knitted gloves in the kitchen. She was lying in the bath when the glacier pushed through the wall. She sank deeper into the water to escape the chill that settled on her shoulders. Trying to ignore the white haze, to lose herself between the pages of her book.
from The Farewell Tourist, Otago University Press, 2018
He Manawa Maunga
We are dwarfed by a snow bank
that reaches beyond our eyes,
a single hole punctuating its white sheet.
Your hand covers my small eyes
and I feel you shielding me in the warmth of your jacket
as we move though.
I open them to a palace of ice and snow
meticulously carved by strangers
long gone down the mountain.
We sit together in silence,
deep in the mountain’s quiet heart.
Watching our breath melt away
the walls around us.
from Tōku Pāpa, Victoria University Press, 2021
Mrs Mary Jane Bennet saw frost on the ground
circling the lighthouse where her children sleep.
At the cliff edge where wildflowers were,
gulls wash seafoam up the shore.
You, gulls, over hoofprints on the track,
over the dunes, over pearl beams ghosting
out from the lighthouse,
in your thousands over clean seashells.
The wind spins dead things in circles.
Collect up the wintertime, won’t you,
crack it on a rock,
drop it from a height.
But, you bird whose wing cuts the tops off waves,
shut your wings for the children
of Mrs Mary Jane Bennett.
Let loose a grey feather.
She will tuck it into the knot
of the blue satin ribbon
ion her eldest daughters hair, the one
who dreams of white things circling.
Nina Mingya Powles
from Girls of the Drift, Seraph Press, 2014
I was thirty-three before I learned people stuck in snow can die from dehydration. I would melt icicles on my tongue for you, resist the drinking down, drip it into you. Then repeat, repeat until my lips were raw.
Deep snow squeaks. We stop on the Desert Road because of the snow. You throw snowballs at the ‘Warning: Army Training Area’ sign. I take macro-photographs of icicles on tussock.
When we drive up the Desert Road we lost National Radio, we lose cellphone reception, we lose all hope. I was thirty-seven before I considered not trying to always fix things. I read an article in the New Yorker about wabi-sabi – the beauty in the broken and the worn. The integrity of the much-used utilitarian object.
But then there was another article about a woman flying to Mexico to be put into a coma so she can wake up mended. It is like rebooting a computer, said the doctor.
Despite wabi-sabi, I want that. To live in snow and not be thirsty. I want good reception all the way up the country. I want a shiny, clean version of myself. Closedown, hibernate, restart.
from The Comforter, Seraph Press, 2011
She overhears the sound of things in hiding.
She bites an apple and imagines orchard starlight.
Each time she licks her thumb, its tip,
she tastes the icy branches,
she hears a sigh migrate from page to page.
from Zoetropes, Victoria University Press, 1981
They would ice-skate:
he worked the canals
between villages, on ice
above the level of the land.
Amsterdam in the fifties:
a row of white stone houses
on a paved street.
New Zealand’s blue sea
lapped at sloping shores,
knew its place
at the flank of land.
Wide stars, small shells,
the open span of sand.
A wooden villa
Those years of good
pudding and bread,
and climbing out of bed.
hang on the wall.
Blond varnished wood.
Those blades, sweeping,
never shook off the ice.
from Echolocation, Victoria University Press, 2007
Island girl Tokoroa
ice-cream puddle licks bare feet
a sky so bright and blue
the sun rimming its yellow stain
make-believe it is summer
yet winter bites frozen fingers
gloves and scarves for some other child
in her hands she holds the key
a coin for lunch one Sally Lunn, miss
creamy pink-smothered bun
there is no word for luxury beyond
this daily walk in winter sun
she can almost taste it
morning flicks by chafing
head down she holds out her hand
winter may snow for all she cares
the skies can turn black
one Sally Lunn, miss
is heaven and blue
from Her Limitless Her, Mākaero Press (Hoopla series), 2018
Three people in the snow
two linked by marriage
memorising fault line
by fault line
and every now and again the head of the summit
and out of sight
three people with backpacks and knees in the snow
threading the mountains with a silence
that once broken
would make you cry
and every now and again the head of the summit
and out of sight
like the early love of a June morning
first an accent and then the hearing
and the sky is a blanket wishing it gone
late on the summit a sparrow
from A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, eds Paula Morris & Alison Wong, Auckland University Press, 2021
There was the war on TV,
the snow, the people lying on plastic
in the snow, death arriving
with his suitcase full of tools,
the delivery out of this world
offers such a dazzling
variety, and the snow, forever this
white tableau becomes forged
with the recollections of your last
and the people lying on the plastic
in the snow.
At the doctor’s I sat with
my tiny hands held in my lap the way
I’d been taught, twolovebirds,
but the flesh was as cold as sheet ice
I was up to my elbows
in frostbite and snow.
There were stories in the news
each day and in the morning paper,
death can happen overnight, may
be in your house if you don’t move
fast enough, in a trench, or
the dreadful football-stadium one,
under the trees in a dark
wood, against a hedge, or even lying
on plastic in the wan snow.
Such soft subdued footfalls,
but a goodly advance
over a long stretch of time.
Others shift their seats away from me
leaving a pencil
-thin cavity, a subtle margin,
but you and I are crouched
together in the snow reading the
they are torn and dirty, tacked to
the cobwebbed wall of some
wild and woody alpine mountain hut:
Construct earthen fortifications
Behind your village. In the case
of serious exposure it is
best to wait for rescue dogs.
We must read the instructions
we must read the instructions
but there are no instructions
I believe there are no instructions.
from Avalanche, Pemmican Press, 2000
Every morning I congratulate
the icicles on their severity.
I think they have courage, backbone,
their hard hearts will never give way.
Then around ten or half past,
hearing the steady falling drops of water
I look up at the eaves. I see
the enactment of the same old winter story
– the icicles weeping away their inborn tears,
and if only they knew it, their identity.
from The Goose Bath: Poems, eds. Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold, Bill Manhire, Vintage, Random House, 2006, picked Hebe Kearney
In this place, silence has a voice wide-ranging as the continent. Some say it’s on the cusp of madness, the way it hums and stutters, mutters to itself in quietest tones.
In this place, the universe brims. Inside absence, presence. Inside distance, dust and our sleeping earth dreaming beneath her thin blue mask of ice.
In this place, the necessity of memory, recollections of a loved one’s face, shape of laughter, weight of breath.
In this place, nostalgia roams patient as slow hands on skin transparent as melt-water. Nights are light and long. Shadows settle on the shoulders of air.
Time steps out of line here stops to thaw the frozen hearts of icebergs. Sleep isn’t always easy in this place where the sun stays up all night and silence has a voice.
from Open Book – Poetry & Images (Steele Roberts, 2007).
Suggested by Jenny Powell. The poem has also been a prompt for various musical compositions, including a piece Antarctikos by US composer, Jabez Co (2010) and The Journey Home (2012) for soprano, tenor, baritone, choir and orchestra by NZ composer John Drummond.
Visiting Rita at Sydney Street West
Wellington rains in a cross-hatch tantrum.
Wind blasts batter everyone backwards.
Lost in a volley of ‘after the hill second street right
follow your nose’ I have taken the wrong hill,
veering left with an eye on the clock.
Landmarks stream down my spectacles,
couplets of directions waterfall out of my head.
Lost in a valley of paper map ink-splash,
folds between us disintegrate. In the if-only world
my fingers wrap a hot cup of tea, my coat dries by your heater.
Sticks torn from moorings shoot down white-water gutters.
Wind race of paper packets eddies in high-speed gusts.
I am lost in solitary panic.
An onslaught of sleet freezes my face.
from Meeting Rita (forthcoming June, Cold Hub Press)
Angela Andrews lives in Auckland with her family. Her PhD in Creative Writing at Victoria University examined the relationship between medicine and poetry. She has previously worked as a doctor.
Claire Beynonis a Dunedin-based artist, writer and independent researcher. She works collaboratively on a diverse range of on- and off-line projects with fellow artists, writers, scientists and musicians in NZ and abroad. These group activities are buoyed and balanced by the contemplative rhythms of her solo practice. Websites here and here.
Modi Deng is a postgraduate candidate in piano performance at the Royal Academy of Music on scholarship. Currently based in London, Modi received a MMus (First Class Honours, Marsden research scholarship) and a BA from Auckland University. Her first chapbook-length collection of poetry will be part of AUP New Poets 8. Her poems have also appeared in A Clear Dawn (AUP), Starling, the Stay Home Zine (Bitter Melon Press), and on NZ Poetry Shelf for National Poetry Day. She cares deeply about literature (especially poetry, diaspora), music, psychology, and her family.
Janet Frame (1924 – 2004), born in Dunedin, was the author of thirteen novels, five story collections, two volumes of poetry, a children’s book and a three-volume autobiography. She won numerous awards including the New Zealand Book Award for poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles, and the New Zealand Scholarship in Letters. She received New Zealand’s highest civil honour in 1990 when she became a Member of the Order of New Zealand. She was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2003 and was named an Arts Foundation Icon Artist in 2004.
Alison Glenny’scollection of prose poems The Farewell Tourist, was published by Otago University Press in 2018. A chapbook, Bird Collector, is being published by Compound Press in 2021. She lives on the Kāpiti Coast.
Helen Lehndorf’sbook, The Comforter, made the New Zealand Listener’s ‘Best 100 Books of 2012′ list. Her second book, Write to the Centre, is a nonfiction book about the practice of keeping a journal. She writes poetry and non-fiction, and has been published in Sport, Landfall, JAAM, and many other publications and anthologies. Recently, she co-created an performance piece The 4410 to the 4412 for the Papaoiea Festival of the Arts with fellow Manawatū writers Maroly Krasner and Charlie Pearson. A conversation between the artists and Pip Adam can be heard on the Better Off Read podcast here
Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.
Vivienne Plumb writes poetry, short and long fiction, drama, and creative non-fiction. She held the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writing Residency in 2018, and has held several other writing residencies (both in N.Z. and overseas), and has been awarded the Hubert Church Prose Award and the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award, amongst others. Her work has been widely anthologised. A new chapbook of her poems will be released in July, 2021.
Jenny Powell is a Dunedin poet and performer. Her work has been part of various journals and collaborations. Her next collection, Meeting Rita, is inspired by the artist Rita Angus, and is due from Cold Hub Press in June 2021.
Nina Mingya Powles is a poet and zinemaker from Wellington, currently living in London. She is the author of Magnolia 木蘭, (a finalist in the Ockham Book Awards and the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2021), a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, and several poetry chapbooks and zines. Her debut essay collection, Small Bodies of Water, will be published in September 2021.
Reihana Robinsonis a writer, artist and farmer living in the wilderness of the Coromandel. She has written two collections, Aue Rona and Her Limitless Her, has had work published in Aotearoa, Australia, France and USA. She is a contributor to the Dante-themed anthology More Favourable Waters and the just published Ora Nui Māori Literary Journal New Zealand and Taiwan Special Edition.
Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Starling and Sport, among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā, published in February 2021, is her first book.
Tōku Pāpā, Ruby Solly, Victoria University Press, 2021
Over the past year, in all my musings and readings, books have felt so very precious. Books crossing myriad categories, books for adults and books for children. Poetry has been especially precious. Aotearoa is alive with poetry communities; there’s such a richness of voice on the page and in the air (and on the screen). And it is so valued.
Pick up a poetry book, hold the book in your hand and feel its preciousness. I picked up Ruby Solly’s debut collection and it felt like I was holding love. The love imbued in the stitches and seams of its making. The photograph will hold you still and steady and already you know that in this book people will be at its heart. Its core.
Enter a poetry book that catches your heart and every pore of your skin, and you enter a forest with its densities, its shadows and lights, canopies and breaths, re-generations. You will meet oceans and rivers and enter different ebbs and flows, different currents, fluencies. You will reach the sky with its infinite hues, dreamings, navigations, weatherings (storm washed, sunlit, moonlit). You will meet the land with its lifeblood, embraces, loves, whānau, anchors.
This is what happens when I read Ruby Solly’s Tōku Pāpā.
When you first told me
that you gave me the name of our tupuna
so that I would be strong enough
to hold our family inside my ribcage,
I believed you.
The collection is in two connected parts, like the two parts of a heart, ‘awe’ and ‘kura’, two nouns linked by feathers, leading us to the ‘essence of soul’, ‘strength, power, influence’ and the red feathers used as ‘decoration, treasure, valued possession, heirloom, precious possession, sacred, divine law, philosophy, darling, chief’, and the ability to glow.
The untitled poem that begins the collection (quoted in part above), before awe and kura, addresses ‘you’, and in this heart-opening the poet draws deep into the knowledge and love and whānau that shape and nourish her, the wairua, the dark places and the light.
I am reminded of Robert Sullivan’s terrific poem ‘Voice Carried My Family’(AUP). Voice carries Ruby, and her voice ‘carries’ everyone she thanks in her acknowledgement page. The collection has myriad tributaries, but a key river is finding voice. She is addressing her Pāpā. She is voicing her relationship and that voice is modulated as musician, as poet, as human being. She is listening to the past and the present, she is writing a river, an ocean, the sky, the land. A forest. A whānau.
The words flow like a solo instrument, with the poet as bow and breath.
There is stillness and movement, and there is always heart. You will find yourself in the scene, and the scene will pulsate and be luminous with life:
We sit together in silence,
deep in the mountain’s quiet heart.
Watching our breath melt away
the walls around us.
from ‘He Manawa Maunga’
There is a road trip to the ballet and a machete blade to be readied for work. Custard tarts are eaten as a car fills with smoke. There are swimming lessons. There is underwater and above water. There is finding the current and then finding breath. There is warmth and there is wisdom.
I especially love ‘Eulogy’ and the father wisdom:
As a child
whenever I was angry,
my father would tell me to write a eulogy
to the person who had caused me pain.
He said that by the end of it
I would see
that even those who cause us pain
are precious to the world.
This precious book – that in its making, its stands, rests and journeys from and towards so much – is the reason why I cannot stop reading and sharing thoughts on and writing my own poetry. The book is a gift and like so many other readers I am grateful. Kia ora Ruby. Thank you.
Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Starling and Sport among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā is her first book.
The tiny sound of air passing through vocal chords
not meaning to sound
but doing so against their best efforts.
An accordion pushed closed with none of its keys down.
We call it a last breath, but really it should be called
a last exhale.
The Judas bird watches
its sisters be eaten
and she tries not to sing.
Every bird sound is singing,
a scream is singing, a warning is singing.
She holds it in, the notes rising to her throat like a vapour.
Her mouth full of pitches,
that can’t help but spill from the corners of her beak.
The Judas bird wishes
the dawn would not break.
But every morning she finds herself singing.
Small arrows of notes pierce the air
as she releases more and more from her quiver.
Even a cry is song.
The Judas bird
sings true and long.
But she has learnt to lessen herself,
to bow to not just the loftiest mountain,
but the smallest grain of sand,
to the dirt under the fingernails
of those who tether her.
She is teaching herself
to song without resonation.
With no harmonics,
no above or below.
Like dropping a stone into a pond
and having it sink with no ripples.
No evidence of its movements
to tell the land
that it is gone.
Ruby Solly is a Kai Tahu musician, taonga puoro practitioner, music therapist and writer living in Wellington. She has played with artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Whirimako Black, Trinity Roots, and The New Zealand String Quartet as both a cellist, and a player of traditional Māori instruments (ngā taonga puoro). She has also worked as a session musician and recording artist with groups such as So Laid Back Country China, Jhan Lindsay, Strowlini Orchestra, and many other artists around Wellington. In 2019 she completed a Masters thesis in the therapeutic potential of taonga puoro in mental health based music therapy, while working in schools, hospitals, prisons and with private clients from iwi around the motu. She also has experience as a composer with pieces commissioned by the New Zealand School of Music in association with SOUNZ, as well as in film work in association with Someday Stories, and the Goethe Institute with Wellington Film Society.
Ruby is also a published poet and has been published in journals associated with many of New Zealand’s universities such as Landfall, Sport, Turbine, and Mayhem. She has also exhibited poetry in Antarctica, America and New Zealand, and was a runner up for the 2019 Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize. Additionally, Ruby is a script writer and has found success with her film Super Special which shares knowledge about Māori views of menstruation through narrative. The film aired on Māori TV, and will also air at the LA Women Film Fest.
In 2020, Ruby released her debut album Pōneke and in early 2021 her first book Toku Papa is being released by Victoria University Press.
Welcome to the Poetry Shelf gathering on National Poetry Day. One of my favourite Poetry Days was in Wellington when I jumped in a taxi and went from one event to the next: Vic Books, the National Library, Unity Books, the Book Hound, Miaow. Listening to others read, reading a snippet myself or mc-ing, it felt like the best thing in the world (well right up there with early morning beach walks, and cooking meals, writing secret things, reading books for hours on end).
These days it feels good to count blessings because there is so much toxic stuff out there. I feel utterly privileged to get sent loads of poetry books published in Aotearoa, and to celebrate some of them on the blog. So many times this year I have picked up a new book and felt goosebumps as I settled into the poem thickets and clearings. You know the feeling – when the music and the mystery and the freshness, the challenges and the sensualness and the connective currents – make you feel so darn good.
I invited a handful of poets to send me an audio or video to celebrate National Poetry Day – it was over to them what they did: read their own poems, read the poems of others, share a favourite book or poet, muse on poetry. Bernadette Hall drove 30 km to hook up with Doc Drumheller and Rangiora Library staff at the band rotunda to create her video. Amy Brown did two versions, one with interruptions and a wee poem from her son Robin. I posted both for you! Student E Wen Wong recorded a poem by Cilla McQueen.
I have been getting these files as Auckland is in level 3 – and everyone else level 2 – and what a treat to listen to them. Poetry can do so much! The past few months it has been of immense comfort, and the way so many of you say yes to my requests.
As some of you know I had a melt down yesterday as WordPress has put us onto a new system that I find hard to manage yet. My daughter helped me a bit, but I had to make a few compromises, and one poet will make a future appearance. Thank you for the boosts on social media.
Happy National Poetry Day everyone. Dip and delve into this glorious and utterly special poetry gathering.
Amy Brown reads two poems of her own: ’16 August 2016′ and ‘Pacing Poem’ from Neon Daze Victoria University Press, 2019. She also reads Airini Beautrais’s ‘Flow’ from Victoria University Press, 2017. Amy sent me two versions, one with interruptions by her son Robin (he does a poem at the end) and one without Robin present. I couldn’t pick as I loved so both, so you get to choose which one to listen to. I think the Robin one is rather special.
Amy Brown reads two poems with the help of Robin
Amy Brown reads the two poems without help
David Eggleton reads ‘The Sound and the Fury’ filmed by Richard C. Wallis in Waikouaiti, North Otago, on Wednesday 19.08.20. Not his tokotoko but a walking stick. Still waiting for the tokotoko ceremony at Matahiwi marae.
Erik Kennedy reads ‘There Is a Man Dancing on the Rudder of an Enormous Cargo Ship’
Bernadette Hall reads two sonnets, one published in Aotearotica and the other in Landfall 239. Her guest Doc Drumheller reads his haiku in Landfall 239. Bernadette had travelled 30 kms to the band rotunda in Rangiora to film this reading with the help of Paula and Daniel from Rangiora Library.
Marty Smith reads ‘Agnus Dei’ from Horse with Hat, Victoria University Press, 2013
Ruby Solly reads two poems, a very early one and a very new one
Chris Tse reads ‘(Green-Nature)’
Louise Wallace reads three poems on a women/mother/daughter theme: by herself, (from Bad Things Victoria University Press, 2017), and by Naomii Seah and Modi Deng (from the latest issue of Starling).
E Wen Wong reads ‘Vegetable Garden Poem iv’ by Cilla McQueen from Axis: Poems and drawings Otago University Press 2001
Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet, novelist and teacher, living in Melbourne. In 2012 she completed a PhD in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of The Propaganda Poster Girl (VUP, 2008), which was shortlisted at the 2009 New Zealand Book Awards, The Odour of Sanctity (VUP, 2013), a contemporary epic poem, and Neon Daze (VUP, 2019), a verse journal of the first four months of motherhood. She is also the author of Pony Tales, a series of children’s novels.
Doc Drumheller was born in South Carolina and has lived in NZ for more than half his life. He has worked in award-winning groups for theatre and music and has published 10 collections of poetry. His poems have been translated into more than 20 languages. He lives in Oxford, where he edits and publishes the literary journal, Catalyst.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin-based poet and writer. He is the current Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate. His Selected Poems is forthcoming.
Bernadette Hall is Otago born and bred. Following a long career as a high school teacher in Dunedin and Christchurch, she has now lived 17 years in a renovated bach at Amberley Beach in the Hurunui, North Canterbury where she has built up a beautiful garden. Her 12th collection of poetry, Fancy Dancing (VUP), will be launched at the WORD festival in Christchurch in November. ‘It’s as close as I’ll ever get to writing an autobiography,’ she says, laughing. And as for the wilful sonnets that explode in the final pages of this book, she wonders where on earth they came from. ‘It was such fun writing them,’ she says, ‘as if I‘d kicked down the stable doors and taken to the hills.’ In 2015 she collaborated with Robyn Webster on Matakaea, Shag Point, an art /text installation exhibited at the Ashburton ArGallery. In the same year she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for outstanding achievement in Poetry. In 2017 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to New Zealand literature.
Erik Kennedy is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018), and he is co-editing a book of climate change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific forthcoming from Auckland University Press in 2021. His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, Landfall, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, the TLS, and Western Humanities Review. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Bill Manhire Aside from publishing his own widely acclaimed poetry, Bill Manhire has edited a number of anthologies and written extensively on New Zealand literature. He was New Zealand’s first Poet Laureate. His most recent collections include Tell Me My Name and Things to Place in a Coffin. Victoria University Press are publishing his new collection Wow November 2020.
Emma Neale is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham NZ Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Emma has received a number of literary fellowships, residencies and awards, the most recent of which is the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for 2020. Her first collection of short stories, Party Games, is due out late 2020/early 2021. Emma lives and works in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, and she is the current editor of Landfall, New Zealand’s longest-running literary journal.
Marty Smith’s Horse with hat won the 2014 Jesse Mackay award for Best First Book of Poetry. Some of the book looks at the cost to her father of not talking about the war. ‘Agnus Dei’ is a poem that crosses religion over into war, although it looks like farming. She grew up riding beside her father, hence the horse strand in Horse with hat, hence the book she is writing about the obsession of people who risk their lives to ride racehorses. She would risk her life right now to ride a racehorse, if she were allowed.
Ruby Solly is a Kai Tahu / Waitaha writer and musician from Aotearoa, New Zealand. She has had poetry and creative non-fiction published in Landfall, Sport, Poetry NZ, Starling, Mimicry, Minarets, E-Tangata, The Spinoff, and Pantograph Punch amongst others. Victoria University Press will be publishing her debut book of poetry ‘Tōku Pāpā’ in 2021. Ruby is also a scriptwriter and her film ‘Super Special’ which aims to share knowledge around traditional Māori views and practices around menstruation has been featured in film festivals within New Zealand and the US. As a musician, she has played with artists such as Yo-yo Ma as part of his Bach Project, Trinity Roots, Whirimako Black, Rikki Gooch, and Ariana Tikao. Ruby is a taonga puoro (traditional Māori musical instruments) player and therapist with a first-class master’s in music therapy where she conducted kaupapa Māori research into the use of taonga puoro in acute mental health. As a taonga puoro player and therapist, she is privileged to work around Aotearoa with people from all walks of life sharing the taonga of her ancestors. She will be beginning a PhD to further her research this year. Her first album, ‘Pōneke’, which also features poetry, is available from rubysolly.bandcamp.cpm
Chris Tse is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC, both published by Auckland University Press. He is a regular book reviewer on Radio New Zealand and contributor to Capital’s Re-Verse column. He is currently co-editing an anthology of queer writers from Aotearoa.
Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago on women, [domestic] paralysis and poetic form.
E Wen Wong is in her final year at Burnside High School, where she is Head Girl for 2020. Last year, her poem Boston Building Blockswon first prize in the Year 12 category of the Poetry New Zealand Student Yearbook Competition.
Ruby Solly is a Kai Tahu / Waitaha writer and musician living in Pōneke. She has had poetry and creative non-fiction published in Landfall, Sport, Poetry NZ, Starling, Mimicry, Minarets, E-Tangata, The Spinoff, and Pantograph Punch amongst others. Victoria University Press will be publishing her debut book of poetry ‘Tōku Pāpā’ in early 2021. Ruby is also a scriptwriter and her film ‘Super Special’ which aims to share knowledge around traditional Māori views and practices around menstruation has been featured in film festivals within New Zealand and the US. As a musician, she has played with artists such as Yo-yo Ma as part of his Bach Project, Trinity Roots, Whirimako Black, Rikki Gooch, and Ariana Tikao. Ruby is a taonga puoro (traditional Māori musical instruments) player and therapist with a first-class master’s in music therapy where she conducted kaupapa Māori research into the use of taonga puoro in acute mental health.
Ruby Solly premieres a video for her new album Pōneke and a wānanga with essa may ranapiri
Today we have a poetry and music video premier from Ruby Solly with film created by Sebastian Lowe and Viktor Baskin, as well as a wānanga around toi kupu, music, and writing into place between Ruby Solly and essa may ranapiri.
I’ve been reading your poetry forever (since before I even knew you) and have been so privileged to hear you play and sing in public, and these songs on Pōneke are just giving me so much life recently! Just stilling those anxious jitters I’ve been struck with after the end of lockdown. It feels so of the outside as well. To me the songs create this river where you dip in and out of such a strength of emotion, I go from chilling and vibing to crying and humming along; face wet! It feels like something I’ve been needing for a long time. And there also poems that go with each one!
Before I ask you anything about the album could you talk a bit about how you got to where you are, your whakapapa and journey here to this time/place?
Ruby Solly Kia ora Essa!
Kā mihi nui for opening this wānanga space. I was a reader of yours before we met too! I love how we get to be woven together in this way, it’s very special to me. I really like the idea of these pieces forming a river as when I was recording them, I looked at a lot of old river routes from pre-colonial times. I like to think of the water under the concrete and how it can be heard in these pieces. After I finished the album I was actually gifted some of the original river stones from the Te Puni Stream which runs under my street, which joins up to the Waimapihi which features on the album. Was a perfect taonga to be given to mark being able to bring those songs and sounds out into the world again.
I whakapapa to Kai Tahu and Waitaha on my taha Māori, but I also have Jewish, Irish, Scottish and English whakapapa within me. I whakapapa back to Waihao as my tino marae in Te Wai Pounamu, from the Rōpa whānau. I was really lucky to grow up on the foot of Mount Ruapehu where I learnt koauau from my primary school teacher, Maria Kuppa, which was my first time meeting ngā taonga puoro. I started playing cello when I was about seven when we lived in Taupo, which also features on the album. I started playing taonga puoro again at university under the korowai aroha of mentors such as Al Fraser, Ariana Tikao, and Rob Thorne. I’ve lived in Pōneke for seven years and over that time have been lucky to receive teachings on our whakapapa here from Kai Tahu kaumātua, as well as learn from locals and historical records about this place and how my histories are placed within it.
essa Sounds like the album is such a culmination of things for you, everything is of course, but it’s cool to pay attention to the whakapapa of our mahi so thank you for sharing that e hoa.
So the songs are lyricless but you wrote these little pieces of toikupu to go with the waiata (which i love!) it really gives context to the music but they work so well as pieces of music themselves. They are full of stories from around the region, what was something (or some things) you learnt that really stuck out to you and why?
Ruby Completely, I think with me when I get an idea it’s not necessarily a poetry idea or a music idea or an art idea; it’s just an idea in and of its self and I get to grow it into whatever direction I choose depending on how I treat it and feed it.
I did! It was hilarious because I wrote these very dry factual explanations of each track and then showed one of my cousins who pointed out how academic and dry they were. I’d just finished my masters so I was in this very academic Pākehā writing frame of mind and it reminded me to break out of that. I thought about how so much of our histories have been given to us and passed down through toikupu and song, and that maybe this work is adding to that tradition. I wrote all the poems in one big day during lockdown, but I had all the info in my head from the descriptions I’d written previously which took a lot longer. That’s often how I work as a writer anyway with a research and thinking phase taking up a lot of time and the actual writing just coming in at the end, I call it the internal blackboard a lot to explain it. The original descriptions can still be seen on the bandcamp page though in case that style suits people better.
I think the things that stuck with me the most were the places that I could whakapapa too, which says a lot about representation within arts and the importance of it. Pieces like the two Karaka poems / songs, and the ones with tohu from ōku mātua tūpuna like Koukou are so special to me. Something I love about taonga puoro is the presences that show up for you when you play, and learning to not only read those tohu but play with them.
I thought about you for this wānanga because one, I love your work, and two, because I’ve heard you read some hōhonu, beautiful pieces about place and your connection or disconnection with it. I love the way you unpack these things like taking things out of a messily packed suitcase, then show us everything inside then pack it neatly so we can see the whakapapa behind these feelings. It really inspires me as a writer and an artist. For you personally, how does writing about place affect you as a Māori writer?
essa I just want to speak to something you were saying at the top there before answering your question. It’s so true that the lines between forms are colonial constructions and it makes so much sense for me for this art to take on many forms, I often have paintings and poems and songs that speak to similar things like a little family work. I don’t know I just think that smooshing of form is really cool!
Writing about place is everything really, it hurts a lot, it challenges me, it makes me feel everything I lack, but also it’s everything we are and will be and have been. Because it’s all about place right? The whole state of things is due to where we are placed, where we are displaced. I wrote a poem about my marae, a place I have only passed on the highway or “visited” via the google maps and the work really does summon something, like just putting words into the world establishes some tenuous connection point. Like a little gift from my ancestors. But also I do worry I fetishize that disconnect sometimes, make my life about the things I don’t have rather the opportunities and connections that I can make. It’s also funny as well because growing up I feel like a lot of things teach you that place doesn’t matter like all the names of the streets are some dead colonizers from Britain and the shows on TV are American, none of us present on the box. It has really been a learning experience for me over the last ten or so years finding place or even coming to see it.
And that is another thing about Pōneke that I really love is how it seems to cuts through that noise – that hypermarketed, hyper commercialised, there is always an ad waiting noise, especially with the melodies that keep returning and returning (we see that spiral again) and the all that incidental sound of place itself. And also it’s so layered, taonga puoro, instruments, found sounds, voice, and bird’s song. Would you be able to talk a little bit about the recording process?
Ruby Yes! The idea of art, or just expression in general being placed into different categories is really colonial when you boil it down. Being able to communicate across mediums and languages is a strength we have inherited from our ancestors that we continue to build upon.
I feel that sense of being challenged. Place is so… present in te ao Māori, we’re asked where we’re from before we’re asked who we are which is both a beautiful thing, and a very complicated thing for those of us who have not been privileged to have that relationship with turangawaewae cultivated in the physical sense. Writing into a place is a very Māori way of creating I think, and yes, it hurts to do it and to move through it. But it definitely gave me a deeper sense of understanding and helped me work through the kind of fetishizing that can happen with any diaspora. I’ve heard it referred to as “competitive pain” within our Jewish diaspora, and I really wanted to be able to choose how I presented that pain and how I wove it with all the other emotions that come with it, the full spectrum of it.
Thank you! When I create complete works like a book, or album, or a large piece without a major prompt I like to try and have it so even if no one was ever to see it but me (and my descendants possibly); we would still grow and learn from it. Then I decide whether I want that to be shared wider. I think in many ways that can cut out the subconscious desire to make something to fit the norm or to serve others, which in many ways serves people who don’t always have their needs met in media usually.
For the recording process I recorded taonga puoro within the different environments, responding to them in real time. Then I layered up cello at home afterwards to support the taonga puoro. Some tracks have some extra layers of sounds from the places when I wanted to really tune in to particular sounds like the gulls on Matiu-Somes island for example (they were also dive bombing me so I had to have a few goes). The whole thing was actually recorded on an iPhone four which I haven’t told anyone until now because I was super whakamā about it! But I learnt a lot about recording and took principles from how jazz bands recorded around one singular microphone in the 1920s with things being placed different distances from the mic. The mixing really added to the sound too which was done by Al Fraser.
essa I have listened to a lot of pro stuff recorded on phones there is a lot of life in those kinds of set ups I think! There is even a strange ideology I think behind those pristine soundproofed spaces set aside for recording, it benefits the subject matter so much for the recordings to done in the spaces they’re responding to! The mix is awesome, brings it all together so well, Al did a great job!
Some final questions, what would you want people to take from this record if just one thing?
Also you have a book of poetry coming out next year do you feel there is an overlap between that work and this?
Ruby Completely! It’s given so many people so many more options! I think as well it can be used as a tool to remove the ’sacred room’ element of recording where we try to eliminate all noise in a studio, and through that it can bring the environment back into the music as a contributor. I think acknowledging the space you’re in and all that brings is a big part of te ao Māori and it feels really good to be able to look at recording in that way as a method of decolonizing the recording process. Al is awesome! We both had finishing off the album and all its components as a sort of lockdown project, and it was so good to have someone who really understood the work and how I’ve developed as a player and a person through it.
I think if I could pick one thing for people to take away… it would be an increased ability to listen to and feel histories in places, with more of a sense of presence. To show people that idea that the repercussions of the past are still here, and we kind of get to look back at them in a way where we see the good and the bad all mixing together, and we get to decide where we go with that information. I’ve had lots of conversations with friends and whānau recently about matakite and te ao wairua, and I think my path into that world is being able to hear places and their histories. It’s deep work to be able to share that and I feel grateful to be walking on that path.
I do! I think for me there again is that creative process where there is a seed of an idea or an experience, and I get to choose what I feed it with and how I grow it. With the book, I started writing it long before I realised. So many of my pieces were about growing up on mount Ruapehu and Turangi, or my family histories and relationships, and then I just saw this thread with my connections to Kai Tahu and all these other people and places through my Dad and that was what was growing as the book. I’m excited for people to read the book because it does that same thing I think, it acknowledges that there is the good and the bad and all of it is our history and has lead to us. There’s a real narrative of me starting to see and hear that through my childhood and figuring out how I choose to live with it. I’m super fascinated too with the parts of our culture we don’t always acknowledge. Things like how we raise children, or the things we value, or the way we structure our speech. I think those things are often the parts that colonisation struggled to remove, and through them that’s often how we find and reclaim our ways of being and so much of our matauranga. Dad used to get me to swim down this river every summer, while everyone else had boats and life jackets, because he wanted me to be a strong swimmer because it was a survival skill for us and our environment. Little pieces like that are often misunderstood, but can be great gifts. I’ve saved myself from drowning many times.
Two more lists after this one because I want to support New Zealand bookshops.
But today I want to celebrate NZ Music Month – music has been such a go-to comfort for me in the past few months. I find myself awake listening to and loving Trevor Reekie’s world-music selection on RNZ in the middle of the night, or Nick Bollinger’s sweetly crafted music reviews along with Jeremy Taylor’s (also RNZ). I found myself playing Nadia Reid latest album over and over again when I was trying to meet an anthology deadline and work seemed impossible.
Earlier this year Michael and I sat on the slopes and listened to Don McGlashan and the Mutton Birds along with The Black Seeds at the Hunting Lodge in West Auckland and it was bliss. Another day and I popped over to Kumeu’s summer Folk Festival and loved everything about it. These outdoor / indoor music events seem like a miracle now, a mirage in my mind to which I keep returning. To hear live music is perhaps one of the most extraordinary human experiences because it transcends everything – all the toxic crap in the world and it brings us together. It makes you feel good: both physically and emotionally.
Hard times for musicians, especially with live music events not on the calendar yet.
Just as we can support NZ books in NZ book shops, we can support our local musicians and purchase their music. I am hanging out for Reb Fountain’s amazing new album (physical one due June).
This week I invited musicians and music fans to pick a book or two that has offered comfort or that they have loved, recently, or at any point in time!
Thanks to everyone who contributed. This a treasure house of books that sets me all aglow as a reader. Ruby Solly has assembled the most wonderful list of books ever and because I have read and loved all of them bar two – those two are now on my must-purchase list! I plan to keep buying books from local bookshops once a week and buying NZ music.
A list of books picked by musicians, music critics, music bookshops and music fans
Marysia Collins (Singer)
I’d like to recommend the book Invisible Women – Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez.
Why do I Iove it?
This book is PACKED with data and examples of biases (i.e. ways the world is way worse for women) which at first punch you in the chest and then make you feel armed with this new power of knowledge. Admittedly it comes with a heavy serving of frustration and sadness, but served in a clever and witty way that in itself reinforces the hope drawn from the good things we know happen when women take an equal place on the stage.
A musical reference from the book is the mention of the fact that a standard piano was designed around the average size of a man’s hands – which are larger than the standard size of a woman’s hands. The obvious implications of this being that it’s harder and more painful/injury-provoking for women to play the piano.
Victoria Kelly (Composer, performer and producer of music – and also the Director of NZ Member Services at APRA AMCOS)
Funny you should ask… just last week I was compelled to return to a book I have read more times than I can count. It’s my favourite book – Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut – and the only thing I’ve felt like reading during this entire lockdown period.
I think it comforts me because Vonnegut has the gift of being able to take the reader by the hand and lead them kindly and generously through the brutality and strangeness of humanity.
I love the fact that it changes as I get older, and that it still surprises and enlightens me.
Perhaps my favourite passage in the book is one I read aloud to my 13 year old daughter just the other night because she was worried about school and finding it hard to get things done at home.
“Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going too. It went like this:
God grant me
the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
to change the things I can
and wisdom always
to tell the
Among the things that Billy could not change were the past, the present, and the future.”
That last sentence that gets me every time.
Don McGlashan (Musician)
I’ve been reading a lot. First CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, a set of short stories by George Saunders, where grotesque but vivid characters scratch out lives in the wastelands and theme-parks of a post-apocalyptic America. I love how funny and bleak Saunders can be at the same time, and sometimes he just floors you with a piece of imagining so true and strong you have to put down the book and breathe deeply for a bit. Like that, for me, was a story called “Offloading for Mrs Schwartz”, about a man who is forced to sell memories to get by; first other peoples, then finally his own.
Then I read Sea People – by Christina Thompson, an utterly engrossing investigation into the history of Pacific peoples, and their voyages of discovery. Thompson, a US/Australian who teaches writing at Harvard, examines what we know, through the work of greats like Dame Anne Salmond and Te Rangi Hiroa; what we are only just now learning, like the re-vitalisation of ancient navigational knowledge by such scholar-voyagers as Nainoa Thompson – and what we still don’t know, like what happened to the Lapita and Rapa Nui civilisations who left such striking footprints and little else. “Sea People” uses multiple lenses: Polynesian oral history, linguistics, archeology, anthropology, the uniquely Western knack of suggesting radical (and wrong) theories rather than ask the locals – and Thompson has skin in the game, too: she writes from the heart because she’s married to a Maori man, and their children carry Polynesian DNA. I picked it up because I wanted to understand more about the Pacific and its people, but after a while, I found that the timeless fog already brought on by the lock-down became even more hazy, as I missed appointments, meals and sleep so I could cram in another chapter.
Trevor Reekies (Musician, writer, Trip To The Moon member, Producer and Presenter of Worlds of Music RNZ)
These 2 gentlemen remain my favorite Poets
SAM HUNT is one of Aotearoa’s most loved and respected Poets. He has lived the life, walked the walk (usually downhill in his treasured Cuban heels) and entertained audiences from all walks of life with his unique perception of his world, his endearing humour and personality and, of course, his poetry. Living the life of an artist in Aotearoa takes considerable motivation in one’s own belief. Sam may give the perception that he arrived as a fully formed poet and that his work comes to him easily. But the reality is that he applies himself to his art every breathing moment of his day. He rehearses, he reads and writes daily. He chucks his creative line into the pool … sometimes he may get a nibble and other times he may arrive at a finished piece, but crucially, he chucks his line into the pool on a daily basis. Sam is equally a brilliant raconteur. He entertains. Sometimes his introductions to the poem are longer than the poem itself but that is part of his charm. I’ve seen him perform shows with bands like The Warratahs and just take command, such is his presence. This place would be the poorer without him. I don’t own many of his books but one title I enjoyed immensely is his book Backroads, Charting a Poet’s Life (2009). It’s a treasure of a book filled with a collection of yarns that reveal his integrity, eloquence, humour and unique charm.
PETER OLDS I met when I was a student at Otago University in the 70’s. From memory it was at a flat in Cumberland street where the Editor of Critic magazine lived. He is the first person I met who described himself as a poet. Peter’s poems are as appealing as many of the ‘Beat’ poets and City Lights’ fraternity. Peter is uniquely himself and writes the way he talks. He was always good company who was totally focused on his work and that is the sort of dedication I admire most. It’s hard work being a ‘poet’ in a country that for years has denied the arts as being ‘work’. .. more a case of being a ‘dole-bludger’ .. Peter Old writes a lot about Dunedin, the city where I was born, walking the same streets that my parents once walked in their youth.
I can read Peter’s work easily and relate to it with the same fondness that I have for the city itself. Peter Olds writes of relationships, hitch-hiking the country and nights at the Captain Cook Hotel with old friends and new, all the time collecting mental notes and anecdotes for future resource. Peter wrote intelligently to a cultural and generational divide. A working class poet blessed with a whimsical humour and a keen ear that (for me) gives his work a significant point of difference.
Favourite Collections: Beethoven’s Guitar (1980) and Under the Dundas Street Bridge (2012)
Nadia Reid (Musician, songwriter)
My recommendation would be a non-fiction book called Birdby Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
Something about her writing just gets me right where I need it. This book is a book about writing ultimately and also about Life. I found it quite relevant to songwriting too. She talks about ‘getting your butt in the chair’ and just turning up. My favourite quote from the book:
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.
O and this quote! This is actually my favourite:
You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
Will Ricketts (Musician, Phoenix Foundation)
A book that gave me some comfort …..
The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar Roald Dahl
Perfect little windows into ingenious scenarios, a collection of miniature mental holidays.
I find Roald Dahl’s style of writing transfers that essential spark or signal within the constant noise, something that is intangible if one tries to encapsulate it in essence.
The formula of doing, the gift of story telling, the gift of the imagination.
Grant Smithies (Music critic/ journalist/ broadcaster)
As a kid, I could often be found in my bedroom, touching my tongue to the terminals of a transistor battery. Ow!… Zzzt!… Ow…Zzzt…Ow!… Zzzt! Why? I grew up in Whanganui in the early 60s, where a cheap thrill was better than no thrill at all. And I like a good jolt.
Perhaps that’s why I read mostly short stories, to the extent that whenever I make my way into a novel, it feels like an interminable journey with far too many people to meet along the way. Give me short, surprising, vivid, weird. Give me Denis Johnson and Joy Williams.
Joy Williams: The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (2015) is a ripping comfort read, assuming you’d find comfort in visiting a succession of skew-whiff worlds rendered by a preacher’s daughter who believes everything, no matter how mundane, has deep cosmic undercurrents.
So many qualities I love in other writers are there in Williams, plus more besides. She is Anton Chekhov in dark glasses and wraparound skirt; a rural Grace Paley; John Cheever stuck fast in the surrealistic groove that gave us The Swimmer and The Enormous Radio. She cops the minimalism of Ray Carver and Lydia Davis, then blows it all sideways with a humid waft of Flannery O’Conner gothic.
She’s a compassionate misanthropist with bold comedic chops, welding rage and despair to belly laughs within sentences so elegant, you sometimes have to read them twice before moving on with the story.
“What a story is, is devious,” Williams once told an interviewer from The Paris Review. “It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes.”
Her subject is American failure and its repercussions. She’s interested in the way people deal with loneliness, and regularly sets up occasions in which her characters are forced to confront their own insignificance, facing the fact that they are just another anxious critter struggling to find safety within nature.
Animals provide a mystical non-human dimension to many of her best stories- members of some secret parallel society, bearing witness, hanging out at our side while living in an utterly different world.
And Denis? Let’s just say that Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (1992) is a book every aspiring short story writer worth their salt reads and rereads like a sacred text, eager to unlock its mysteries.
Again, funny and bleak are bedfellows throughout these eleven interlinked tales of lost souls crashing cars, breaking into houses, shooting up, committing murder, hanging out in bars where some drinkers are still clad in wee plastic bootees and hospital gowns after going “over the wall” from rehab.
The action moves between 1970s Iowa, Chicago, Seattle and Phoenix. Someone gets stabbed in the eye by his wife. Bad things happen to bunnies. A naked woman with long red hair hovers above a speedboat while two men strip electrical wire from the walls of a house to sell for drug money.
Leaps in logic, time, focus and tone mirror the addled mental state of the central protagonist: shaky memories/ wishful thinking/ drug hallucinations/ obsessions/ pathologies/ outright lies are all rolled together into sentences so poetically compressed, I sometimes finish a story and go straight back to the start.
Johnson once described his own writing as a “zoo of wild utterances”, and it’s a zoo worth visiting. Jesus’ Son makes you either want to become a better writer or give up writing altogether. And it will give you more pleasure than putting your tongue on a transistor battery.
Ruby Solly (Musician, poet, performer)
Curating this book list was super interesting as I realised books are not really something I turn to much for comfort nowadays. Mostly I turn to books to challenge myself and turn to other things like music for comfort which makes sense as I work with both fields so listen and read a lot. But when I need comfort, there are a few favorites I return too. All of these books are set in strange otherworldly places in one way or another. Be that 1970s New York, or a land stuck in perpetual winter. They also help us to answer big questions, or at least to add a little bit more to what we already know so we can live with not knowing all the answers. They show us parts of who we are, and parts of who we can be. I hope you pick up one or two, and I hope you enjoy them as much as me.
Light Boxes by Shane Jones
I bought this beautiful little poetic novel on a whim when I was about fourteen before a car trip home, and it lasted me the exact space from Hamilton to Turangi. Shane Jones is an excellent writer in the alt-lit scene and this, his first book, looks at a close-knit town that is perpetually stuck in winter, which is personified as a man called ‘February’ who lives in the sky beyond the clouds. Jones weaves together poetry, drawings, prose and a sea of surreal characters and scenes to make a book that takes you from the depths of depression into a new world. I use this book almost medicinally when I’m feeling really low.
How To Live Forever by Colin Thompson
As part of my job, I spend a lot of time with kids and books. This one has stuck with me for life and comes as both a picture book (with Colin’s detailed and otherworldly illustrations) and a children’s novel. Colin Thompson is my favorite children’s author / illustrator as he managed to weave these incredible worlds filled with magic, and humor; all while examining some really heavy questions around topics such as purpose, greed, and death and dying. But don’t let that put you off. This book is full of magical characters, homes that pop up in books, and helps children (and let’s be honest, adults) understand that good things need to come to an end for us to truly appreciate them.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
I’m a huge Patti Smith fan, and this book sums up a such a specific and special relationship that young artists starting out have with each other. It reminds me in part of the girls and gays essay by Tayi Tibble, and describes this beautiful (in Patti’s case, mostly) platonic love and how that support and nourishing of each other creates such beautiful work because both parties feel so loved and supported. In typical Patti fashion, the book is littered with beat celebrities and includes her first encounters with Allen Ginsberg (who initially thought she was a handsome boy) and William Burroughs to name a few. The book has this rich sense of wonder at the size and magic of 1970s New York and feels full of hope.
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan
This book is described as an American post-modern post-apocalyptic novel; which I admit does not sound comforting from the get-go. Richard Brautigan is also described as being one of the grandfathers of alternative literature, and his influenced can be seen in many other writers including Shane Jones. In this book, he creates a commune in a village that has its own bizarre way of being where nearly everything is made from different colored watermelons, more specifically, the sugar that comes from them. The sky changes color each day of the week and the different colored watermelons must be harvested on the day that the sky matches them. One of the days is a ‘black soundless day’ which is when the black watermelons are harvested. This book is a sensory treat and can take you away from anything with the strength of its imagery and bizarre scenes that can feel almost animated or film like.
Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo
Written by the first Native American poet Laurette of the United States, this book is filled with wisdom and hope in the face of so many impossible things. Joy’s voice has this incredible way of looking at difficult and awful situations through love and ancestral wisdom in order to survive and honor those who have brought her there. She talks in this book of ‘the knowing’ which is a powerful thing to bring into one’s life during times that comfort is needed. Anything by Joy is a real comfort book for me.
Under Glass by Gregory Kan
I love poetry books that are bigger than just the individual poems. This book is a journey into a strange world with two suns (which light boxes has as well!) and gives us a winding path to follow through the new places we find ourselves in. There’s this subtle percolating, calm sort of insistence in this book. Willing you to read on. The pacing in this is beautiful and always leaves me feeling like if been on a journey and now am ready for a gentle sleep and wherever dreams may take me, I can handle it.
Ruby-Fruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
This was my big, queer, coming out read and what a way to start. The story follows Molly Bolt and her life, starting with her in primary school scheming with her best friend getting him to ‘show himself’ to girls for a price that they then split 50/50. Molly is a bulshy, queer little grifter who makes her way around America making friends, art, and discovering herself and the dangers that being yourself can have for someone like her. It’s light, beautiful, and hilarious.
Mophead by Selina Tusitala Marsh
My Mum bought me this book after we read it together in a bookstore and she cried saying “It’s so like you!”. I felt very embarrassed to be compared to Selina even by my Mum, but I’ve returned to this book again and again when I’ve had a rough day. Selina’s writing has a vivaciousness that’s infectious, it’s impossible not to feel powerful and special reading this book. It shows you that no matter where you are at in your journey, you’re exactly where you need to be.
Wāhine Toa by Patricia Grace and Robyn Kahukiwa
This book outlines the female whakapapa of ngā tangata Māori with the deepest words and illustrations. Pūrākau show us how to live our lives, and all of them are filled with multitudes of lessons where we take what we need at the time and leave the rest for others or for when we may need it in future. This is a book to be read again and again, and to discover something new every time.
(Paula: Thanks Ruby! This list was like a comfort blanket to me! I so loved being taken back to books that have meant a lot to me too.)
Simon Sweetman (music journalist, music blogger, short story writer and poet
Greil Marcus Mystery Train (1975)
I have a few non-fiction books I return to – some to just dip in and out of, others where you read it again from cover to cover – Mystery Train by Griel Marcus is both. I’ve read this book start to finish a half-dozen times but I’ve dipped in to it for just a few pages in one gulp on so many occasions. It’s a history of rock’n’roll through four essays – four artists mark the development of American music, are the signposts. The Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley. But with Marcus it’s all about the links and distractions – the way he uses these artists to also tell the story of many other musical acts and cultural moments. The writing is brilliant – and the final chapter is the best writing on Elvis Presley that you’ll ever find. And by extension it’s some of the best writing about America. “Mystery Train” is that rare music book where you could read it without having too much interest in reading about music – it is worth it for the journey and the language and the command of writing. But it would be impossible to close the book not being curious about so much of the music discussed in its pages. One of my all-time favourite books and easily one of my favourite volumes of music journalism.
Jeremy Taylor (Slow Boat Records, RNZ music reviewer)
If I were to name one book that I have genuinely loved, and that has stood up to continued re-readings, it would be Luke Haines’ Bad Vibes: Britpop, and my part in its downfall.
It is alternately hilariously funny, bleak, cruel, tender, and self-aware, and has the best anecdotes (returning home to his dingy flat in Camden to find Metallica sitting on his couch!). The history of Britpop as told by someone smart enough to realise it was all, actually, bullshit. Thoroughly recommended!
Death of a River Guide, by Richard Flanagan. Penguin Books, 1994.
I’ve just started reading this book again. It was a birthday gift from my then boyfriend, who wrote a beautiful mihi to me on the inside cover. We were about to go our separate ways while he went off on his OE, and I headed back to New Zealand after living together in Sydney for a year. It was February 1998, and we’d just finished the Overland Track, an epic seven day tramp through the mountainous heart of Tasmania, down to its lush West Coast. The book is set in Tasmania, and includes not only the drowning river guide Aljaz Cosini’s personal and family history, but touches upon the wider history of Tasmania. It starts with a description of his traumatic birth, which has certain similarities to his pending death. By the way, the boyfriend didn’t stay away on his OE all that long, and now we have two adult children. Our youngest is planning his own OE – once borders open again. Things tend to have a cyclic nature, and in the meantime I will enjoy ‘returning’ to Tasmania via this beautifully told story.