Tag Archives: Sam Sampson

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

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

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


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


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

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


Sam Sampson

Updated From Poets and Fans of Poetry: Favourite poetry reads of 2014

I am not sure if two lists make this an annual event (so I resisted temptation to put ‘annual’ in the title!), but here are the books that have stuck with local poets and fans of poetry in the past year. Unlike most ‘best of 2014 book lists’, the invitation is to select favourite reads no matter where or when those reads were published. The only limitation—this is a poetry list.

Over summer, I will muse over the future of my two blogs. If I do decide to keep them running, I will make a few changes changes to clear space for my own writing time. One thing is certain, I can never review all NZ poetry books on this blog. I have a huge stack of books I want to review, but know I can only do a handful over the next few weeks.  I guess with the scarcity of poetry reviews in New Zealand, I feel pressure to share all the wonderful writing that I discover.  I would certainly be keen to post reviews and musing by other poets.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this list at a time when we all have such busy schedules, and thanks to everyone who contributed to the blog over the past year. It wouldn’t work with out you. Thanks, too, to everyone who shared my posts on social media and who followed both this and NZ Poetry Box.

John Adams:

The Life-guard, Ian Wedde, AUP.

Stark metaphors, sustained muscular writing that disturbs. A strong surface with an underbelly that provokes contemplation and rewards reflection. The final group “Shadow stands up” successfully blends quotidian observation with humour. Stuff to savour.

Autobiography of a Marguerite, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Hue & Cry Press.

The disquieting disclosures of these poems builds a unique experience of family; patterns of mother and daughter; trials of close binding. How can we be, with such context? A journey to a foreign part.

Fearing the Kynge, Bernard Brown, Foundation Press (c/o 14 Birdwood Crescent, Parnell.

A short collection around Henry VIII and those who passed through his life, sometimes more quickly than they’d wished. Beautifully illustrated, the text ranges from the hearty pun to closely worked items that reward revisiting.

Sailing Alone around the Room, Billy Collins, Random House.

This masterly collection includes unforgettable, accessible gems. I love his riff on Blues; and any poet will weep with laughter at the enacted difficulty of Paradelle.

Rosetta Allen:

Cloudboy Siobhan Harvey Otago University Press

‘When the eye was overcast,
there could be no poetry.’

If the face was made to mirror the stars, then the entire body responds to the cloudscape that is this beautiful collection of poetry called Cloudboy. Harvey herself says ‘The body is a nest alive with new song’, and I feel it as I read her perfected lines, full of ever changing details of the atmosphere between a very special son, and an obviously devoted mother. No longer a passive pass time, cloud watching has become an active search for understanding, beauty, love and courage. And I too find myself looking up, with appreciation.
One Human in Height Rachel O’Neill Hue & Cry

‘I love that Father finds the faint trace of cyanide on his ring finger just in time and chops it off.’

I found the words of O’Neill’s poetry happily settled on the page. The humility trumpets itself without fanfare. Each poem, each line containing a neatly package surprise – I a kid in the back seat of a her car, unravelling lollies, and remembering, feeling part of the scene, included and instantly befriended. I adore the rhymes in the midst of lines, the lists that are not lists, the epiphanies that pile up until you have to let some go, the meaning where there is no meaning, and I believed every bit of it – almost.

Sarah Jane Barnett:

The Lonely Nude by Emily Dobson (VUP) An extremely beautiful collection about dislocation, identity, expectation, and the body. It traces Dobson’s own experiences of leaving New Zealand, living in the US, and her return. Dobson’s poems are spare and exquisitely crafted. She’s definitely my #1 poetry crush of 2014.

Etymology by Bryan Walpert (Cinnamon Press) Even though Etymology came out in 2009, I only managed to read it this year. As the title suggests, the poems are about the way we create meaning, not only in terms of words, but in our relationships and lives. It’s so sharp and clever that it made me want to give up writing.

Curriculum Vitae by Harold Jones (Xlibris/self published) Jones’ debut collection was my surprise of the year. Generally speaking, self published collections aren’t very good. I should have known that this would be the exception when I found out Jones has been published as part of AUP New Poets 4. Curriculum Vitae is a wonderful exploration of aging, regret, and memory. It was the only collection this year that made me cry.

Airini Beautrais:

2014 has been such a fruitful year for poetry. I haven’t quite finished reading all the wonderful local books that have come out, some as recently as last week. I have loved Hinemoana Baker’s waha/mouth (VUP 2014). And Maria McMillan’s Tree Space is an amazingly assured first full-length collection (also VUP 2014).

Diana Bridge:

For me this year has been weighted towards prose. I began it with the biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I interleaved with a re-reading of all her novels. Her last, The Blue Flower, was recently described with insight by Alan Hollinghurst as having ” something of the overall effect of a poem, a constellation of images and ideas.”

While I am waiting for the next collection of wonderful Australian poet, Judith Beveridge, I have been reading through her last two: Wolf Notes and Storm and Honey (Giramondo, 2003 and 2009), relishing her naturalist’s eye coupled to extraordinary and sustained imaginative powers. All her poems are filled with grace and intelligence.

Now a single poem, one I had been searching for since I first read it in the New York Review (October 7, 2004): Seamus Heaney‘s ‘ What Passed at Colonus’, written in memory of Czeslaw Milosz. I would want this to be one of the last poems I ever read.

Amy Brown:
Horse with Hat, by Marty Smith (VUP, 2014): This collection is a poignant and wry family biography. It juxtaposes earthy and transcendent subjects (the racetrack, the farm, Catholicism, war) as naturally as its stunning accompanying collages (by Brendan O’Brien) do. I especially loved Smith’s horses; I can picture the ‘dawn horses’ ‘who flatten, who scatter’ perfectly.

Final Theory, by Bonny Cassidy (Giramondo, 2014): This verse novel develops an eerie, quietly filmic atmosphere of post-apocalypse. Cassidy is an Australian poet, who wrote part of this poem while travelling in New Zealand – the landscape she describes is simultaneously recognisable and alien – a place where ‘three stilled turbines balance the space like stupas’ and ‘the ocean’s a mouthed thought’. Exquisitely clear and unsettling, it is the sort of book I’d love to write one day.

Mondrian’s Flowers, By Alan Loney and Max Gimblett (Granary Books, 2002): I stumbled upon this poetic biography of Piet Mondrian while reviewing Loney and Gimblett’s recent eMailing Flowers to Mondrian. Only 41 books were made, each with rough-cut watercolour pages and an exposed primary-coloured spine. Three long poems by Loney in tribute to Mondrian are punctuated by Gimblett’s watercolours. Reading it is a meditative act; if you’re in Wellington, I recommend looking at the copy in the National Library. Her

Rachel Bush:

Marty Smith, Horse with Hat Victoria University Press Marty Smith’s work is new to me. Rural New Zealand, family stories, and the stories of a generation are combined in her excellent first volume of poetry. It’s poignant stuff that doesn’t balk at the sorts of tough, sad realities that exist in all families.

Lindsay Pope Headwinds Makaro Press Lindsay Pope’s engaging first book of poems is very timely. Family events, like the birth of a grandchild and low key domestic things like making muesli feature in it, but he’s also drawn to write about solitary lives like that of the caretaker on Stephens Island or the man in ‘Outpost’ whose closest contact with the outside world comes through the radio he operates.

Vincent O’Sullivan Us, then Victoria University Press I enjoy the ease with which Vincent O’Sullivan can refer as easily to a Dunedin Beach as he does to lines from Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens or to the poetry of McGonagall. He investigates difficult questions, but doesn’t come up with facile, tidy answers to them.. This is a collection thoughtful, witty, sure-footed poems.

Michael Harlow Sweeping the Courtyard: The selected poems of Michael Harlow Cold Hub Press
Poems chosen from seven books of poetry by Michael Harlow make  for a lively and varied collection. He is interested in and  sensitive to how each poem looks on the page. I enjoy his distinct and often quirky voice.

Kay Cooke:
Essential NZ Poems Facing The Empty Page selected by Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe and Harry Ricketts. Published by Godwit. A real  treasury indeed of NZ poets. (Although I missed Tim Jones and Helen Lehendorf not being there).

Si no te hubieras ido / If only you hadn’t gone by Rogelio Gueda with translations from the Spanish by Roger Hickin and an introduction by Vincent O’Sullivan. A gem of a book with poems about distance, love and Dunedin. Published by Cold Hub Press.

You Fit The Description: The Selected Poems of Peter Olds published by Cold Hub Press. The long-awaited collection of Olds’ poetry; a prolific New Zealand poet whose background in poetry in Aotearoa stretches back to the James K. Baxter era. I’m thoroughly enjoying this book which is sure to become a classic. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but so far – It’s a cracker.

A chapbook that has both inspired and thrilled me with its re-imagined worlds within worlds, delicately traced with a steely eye, is Jenny Powell’s Trouble published by Cold Hub Press.

Ruth Arnison’s PoARTry @ Olveston (self-published) with its clever mix of paintings and words, is also a favourite from my 2014 pile of poetry.

Karen Craig:

I’m looking at the three books I’ve laid out on my table and what I notice is that they all have lots to do with the sea, seabirds, islands. And I have a wonderful feeling that if I were to pry up their covers I’d hear sounds of imaginary oceans, like when you hold a seashell up to your ear. Because, like seashells, these poets have taken the sounds of our world and clarified and amplified them, made them resonate, turned them into a deep, quiet, prolonged roar. Each with a different pitch, of course.

1. Richard Blanco Looking for The Gulf Motel, University of Pittsburgh Press 2012 (You can get it at Auckland Libraries!). Richard Blanco’s seasides are Cuba, where he was born; Florida, where as a boy he emigrated with his family; and now Maine, where he ended up for love. He sings the enigma of memory, the yearn of sorrow, the terror of romantic love. “The sea is never the same twice. Today / the waves open their lions’ mouths hungry / for the shore, and I feel the earth helpless.”

2. Michele Leggott Heartland Auckland University Press 2014. These poems burn like the hot blue stars which recur in one of them. You dive in to their mesmerising, punctuationless (as always) whirl and find at the heart a distillation of spirit that is so honest as to be unforgettable. The long poem about the introduction into her life of her guide-dog ends with the simplest of phrases, “her name is Olive”, and it’s as if a choir broke out.

3. Bob Orr Odysseus in Woolloomooloo Steele Roberts 2014. Bob Orr embraces the sacred and the profane better than anyone. From the ancient mysteries to modern gazes, from Penrose to Valparaiso, his imagery amazes me and his turns-of-phrase make me want to get down on my knees and say Hallelujah! “As the Southern Cross / salts these hours / I shiver beneath signs and wonders.”

David Eggleton:

There were a number of outstanding poetry books I read this year, but these in particular offered things which have stayed with me.

  1. Kay Mackenzie Cooke’s book-length sequence Born to a Red-Headed Woman (Otago University Press) offers a remarkable evocation of growing up in rural Southland: ‘The teacher draws close, / her own fingers cool, // narrow streamlined/ dragonflies that touch down/ briefly where my fingertips/ have begun to make mist, / What lovely moons you have, she says.’
  2. In Sweeping the Courtyard: the Selected Poems of Michael Harlow, Michael Harlow’s poems are like miniature echo-chambers, their lines teasing and entrancing with repetitions of words and phrases which resonate with subtle implications: ‘We were walking out of the park, your/ hair on fire under a full fall of moon, / the flowering almond its bridal white/ fading earlier than was remembered// I could hear, a leaf-fall of thought . . .’
  3. I was impressed by the restless inquisitive searching tone, the careful observation, in Jenny Powell’s small collection Trouble (Cold Hub), as in her poem describing the scene in a photograph ‘Guided Walking Party on the Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand c. 1908’: ‘five women/ standing on/ frozen contortions of time/ frock hems damp/ from trailing overground undulations . . .’
  4. I was also pleasurably arrested by the precise and telling imagistic phrases that made up Hinemoana Baker’s collection waha:mouth (Victoria University Press), as for example in ‘what the whale said’: ‘ I break/ the brine, my flukes a black book// a mast in your mind/ cross of the drowned. . .’
  5. I was amused by the rhythms and rhymes forming sweet and sour stanza combinations in Tim Upperton’s poetry collection The Night We Ate the Baby (Haunui Press), as in ‘All the Things I Never Knew’: ‘Bobbie watches headlights move/ across the wall. / A little rain begins to fall — / a little rain to end the day. // It falls differently in L.A./ Choctaw Ridge is far away.’
  6. Likewise, I enjoyed the almost whispered whimsy and well-turned verses in Peter Bland’s short book Hunting Elephants (Steele Roberts), as in his dream-poem about James K. Baxter: ‘Not/ a pretty sight/ with his soup-stained beard/ but there’s a lovely/ holy glow / to his skin . . .’
  7. Tom Weston’s collection Only One Question (Steele Roberts) contains a number of extraordinary poems, especially about crime and punishment. He shows us characters who have the fatalism, or else the tragic destiny of Joseph Conrad’s characters, as in the title poem: ‘When he sends children to prison the parents go too, / trailing along like wind-ripped flags.’
  8. And, finally, I was taken with the rapping urgency of Leilani Tamu’s street-wise voice in The Art of Excavation (Anahera Press), as in ‘You’, a poem about her father: ‘. . . driving around Auckland in your crusty-as car/ a hole in your sock, an empty pocket, a heart full/ of dreams but never a cent . . .’

Laurence Fearnley:

Dylan Thomas SELECTED POEMS (Penguin Classics)

I watched a couple of science fiction/space movies recently and, in general, I found them pretty dull and really long. But, a couple of them  included poems by Dylan Thomas. The film Solaris had ‘And Death Shall have No Dominion’ and Interstellar included ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.’ So I found my copy of Dylan Thomas’s poems and I noticed in its introduction that Thomas is described as ‘dense and often difficult’. I don’t know about that.  I liked the imagery in some of the poems – ‘Where birds ride like leaves…’ (When I Woke)  or ‘…the shabby curtains of the skin…’ (A Process in the Weather of the Heart), for example . After reading Thomas I got out my James K Baxter and Janet Frame books and spent a while flicking back and forth between the three writers.

Joan Fleming:
I have never read anything like George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle (Puncher & Wattman, 2014), edited and translated by Stuart Cooke. Cooke braids a dimensional translation of an Aboriginal song-poem from many strands: the words of the song in language, traditional owners’ verbatim explanations, an ethnomusicologist’s commentary, and his own circling, cycling rendering in english. Such important work; this book is a bit of a game-changer.

Siobhan Harvey:

Alexandra Fraser, Conversations by Owl Light (Steele Roberts) is a first collection which engages with concepts of chemistry, love, botany, family, astronomy, tarot and ancestry. The author’s evocative language, pinpoint accuracy and sumptuous concern for human interaction make is a 2014 standout.

Ancestry also underpins another exciting first book, Leilani Tamu’s The Art of Excavation (Anahera Press). Excavating her family and Pacific history, the book is an entwining of legend and cultural realism.

Miriam Barr, Bullet Hole Riddle (Steele Roberts) packs a powerful punch. A triptych charting the narrator’s cruel, abusive history, it’s a book of unflinching honesty and potent impact.

Dinah Hawken:

The Great Enigma, New Collected Poems, Tomas Transtromer, New Directions Books, 2006.

This has been my favourite book for a couple of years. I’d love to be able to write like him and it would take too long to tell why.

Body English, Text and Images by Len Lye, edited by Roger Horrocks, Holloway Press, 2009.

I splashed out and bought this book a few months ago, not long after reading Roger Horrocks’ biography of Len Lye.
I knew I would love it because Lye was so extraordinary; particularly in his understanding of how the body gives rise to all creative ventures including poetry. ‘ I hold/words in the bone.’

Otari, Poems and Prose, Louise Wrightson, Otari Press, 2014.

This very new, first book by Louise Wrightson has been written slowly, close to home. Louise lives on the edge of Otari/Wilton’s Bush in Wellington and has written a book about place that is dedicated, funny and beautifully produced.

David Hill: 

I’d like to mention:  1. Ruby Duby Du, by Elizabeth Smither (Cold Hub Press, PO Box 156, Lyttleton). Smither’s enchanting poems for her new grand-daughter, which manage to combine tenderness with her distinctive cool, meticulous observation.

2. A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children, ed by Paula Green, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Random House). Yes, I know I’m not supposed to include Paula Green’s poems, but she’s just (“just”!!) the editor of this terrific anthology which ranges from Baxter to school-kids. Exuberant, engaging, educational, and made more so by Jenny Cooper’s magic illustrations.

Bill Manhire:

Do song lyrics count as poetry? If so, I’ve been enjoying The Lines Are Open from The Close Readers (aka Damien Wilkins). It includes tracks about departed writing friends like Barbara Anderson and Nigel Cox. One of them – “The Ballad of Tarzan Presley” http://theclosereaders.com/track/the-ballad-of-tarzan-presley – makes my heart hurt yet somehow leaves me happy.

It’s been a strong year for New Zealand poetry.  So many accomplished first collections! I was pleased to see Frances Samuel’s Sleeping on Horseback (VUP) in print – I’ve been waiting for some version of this book for about ten years. Another impressive first book is Kerry Hines’s Young Country, in which the poet’s words keep company with the images of 19th-century photographer William Williams. It’s a mix that can seem easy and obvious, but is surprisingly hard to do well. Between them, Hines and Auckland University Press make the task seem effortless.

A couple of other great reading pleasures this year have been A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind: The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton (edited by Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal, and published by The Song Cave) and Maurice Riordan’s new collection from Faber, The Water Stealer.  Alfred Starr Hamilton is the poetry equivalent of the apparently naïve artist, of a Chagall or an Alfred Wallis. He has an appealing clumsiness, and specialises in astonishing small moments, as in his one-line poem “Carrot”: “I wanted to find a little yellow candlelight in the garden.” Maurice Riordan manages to be lyrical and thoughtful all at once, and is also the editor of The Finest Music: Early Irish Lyrics, a handsome anthology which includes translations from Tennyson to Riordan himself, as well as a number specially commissioned for the book.

Alice Miller:

Sam Sampson, Halcyon Ghosts (AUP, 2014)
‘shadow this, take and come up/  shadow, come to the present … the sur-/ face… the Lion —– the Light  —– the Luminous’

Lee Posna, Arboretum (Compound Press, 2014)

Steven Toussaint, Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014)

Emma Neale:

Poetry books this year I enjoyed…. I still have many books on my bedside table that I’m still only part way through – e.g. Stefanie Lash’s Bird Murder and Hinemoana Baker’s Waha-Mouth and more and more… but of those I have finished, the memorable ones are:

Siobhan Harvey, Cloudboy – I hope it’s all right to nominate a book I edited – it’s the only one I’ll let myself name out of some other wonderful books I worked on this year – but this one stood out for the ’tensile delicacy’ with which it maintains the extended metaphor of boy and mother as shifting cloudscape; for its subtle use of line and page as physical space as well as rhythmic unit; for its music and invigorating intelligence. It is an important milestone in local publishing, I reckon, for the poise in that sustained motif; for the fact that the metaphor never feels strained or gimmicky; and for the richness of the psychology in the relationships portrayed across the developing sequence.

Alice Miller, The Limits – for its dreamy eeriness, its evocation of beauty even as it catches the jittery sense of a civilisation crumbling; for its creation of the atmosphere of dread and yet a sense of old-new mythology as well.

Michael Harlow, Sweeping the Courtyard – a selected from Harlow seems long overdue, and it’s a joy to have this now that older volumes are out of print. His sense of the surreal, the power of the subconscious, and his ear attuned to the lilt and rise of a sometimes slightly eccentric syntax shows a musical ear for how to upend where the emphasis normally falls in a line. It keeps us listening closely to the swerve and duck of words: how meaning can shimmer from one sense to another, depending on how you hold light to the line. His sense of the power of the subconscious and seems to perhaps have filtered through to a poet like Alice Miller.

Peter Olds, Selected Poems – I am a latecomer to Peter’s work, and the stretch of experience here, as well as the energetic vernacular, was both refreshing and sometimes devastating to read. Many of the poems record pushing himself right to the edge of risk, and the cost is shown to be very bleak at times – which means that the mischievous, finger-flipping humour that survives in some poems is all the more welcome.

Tim Upperton, The Night We Ate the Baby –  I kept waiting for my kids to ask why I was reading this book. They never did. I enjoyed it for its technical control and its grim, self-loathing, Beckettian humour. It reminds me a little of Simon Armitage’s work: Simon Armitage meets Wendy Cope in a horror film with dialogue done by Dylan Moran? Something like that: it leaves me a happy kind of uncomfortable.

Zarah Butcher McGonnigle Autobiography of a Margeurite – I loved the concept – sometimes I loved the concept more than individual poems, but this was a bold, adventurous debut.

Cilla McQueen Edwin’s Egg and Other Poetic Novellas –  witty, surprising, gracefully succinct, playful – the implied dialogue between archival image and the text was gorgeously unseating and sideways, sometimes; others, poignant, piquant, peppery, plangent.

Vivienne Plumb:

My favourite poetry read of this year was a copy of Paris Spleen by Charles Baudelaire, purchased at the wonderful Scorpio books independent bookstore, 113 Riccarton Rd, Christchurch.  Originally published in 1869, this new reprint is from Alma Classics Ltd, U.K. (2010). These pieces by Baudelaire are considered to be very early prose poems.
Baudelaire wrote that ‘Parisian life is rich in poetic, marvellous subjects’, and described in a letter of 1862 his ambition to make the pieces that were eventually dubbed ‘prose poems’.

Lindsay Pope:

Leaf-Huts and Snow-Houses by Olav H. Hauge. Pat White introduced me to this Norwegian poet. He lived nearly all his life in his native Ulvik where he worked as a gardener. His writing is simple and precise yet laced with a lot of wisdom.

Lindsay Rabbitt:

Odysseus in Woolloomooloo, by Bob Orr (Steele Roberts, 2014), 60 pp., $19.99

‘If James Joyce could reanimate Ulysses [Odysseus] on the banks of the Liffey, why not bring the wily old wanderer to the South Pacific?’ Iain Sharp posits in his review of Odysseus in Woolloomooloo (a harbour-side Sydney suburb) in the July edition of Landfall Review Online, which I tout as my favourite review of a NZ poetry book, coincidentally on my favourite NZ poetry book (that I’ve read) published 2014. I have five of Bob Orr’s eight books of verse in my bookcase, including his first, the scarce-as-hen’s-teeth Blue Footpaths, published by The Amphedesma Press out of London in 1971, and this beautifully-produced latest offering sees Orr, a boatman on the Waitemata Harbour, and one of our finest lyric poets, at the top of his game, whether retracing his boyhood homeland in rural Waikato, or recalling his Wellington days, or visiting a terminally-ill friend in Sydney, or wandering the streets of Auckland, or out night fishing: ‘As the Southern Cross / salts these hours / I shiver beneath signs and wonders.’

Jack Ross:
Char, René. Furor and Mystery & Other Writings. Trans. Mary Ann Caws & Nancy Kline. 1992. Introduction by Sandra Bermann. Foreword by Marie-Claude Char. Black Widow Press Translation Series. Black Widow Press. Boston. MA: Commonwealth Books, Inc., 2010.

This is a big, generous dual-text selection of a lot of work form the whole span of René Char’s career, from early surrealist days, though the darkness of the Vichy years in France, and into postwar existentialism and disillusionment. Char was one of Paul Celan’s favourite poets, and a close personal friend, and the affinities between the two poets are quite striking — though probably more in the mood and underlying seriousness than the surface texture of their work.

I’ve also been reading a lot of NZ poetry books this year for Poetry NZ. I tried to say something about each of them at the back of the latest issue, but you can link to the detail of my remarks.

Lisa Samuels:

A few poetry books I found in 2014, with room for more

Iain Britton, Photosynthesis (Kilmog Press 2014). A beautifully hand-made art book in 40 copies, with 20 poems that attend to the medial line between the conscious report of observed and felt phenomena and the image moment that swerves the mind.

Jill Magi, Labor (Nightboat 2014). An essay in poetry, framed as a workography, that lays bare the devastated internal landscape of university labor. The university lecturer must strain the bad faith of corporate academia through her body in order to try and make a good faith realm for students and ideas.

Alan Halsey, Rampant Inertia (Shearsman 2014). From asemic (and glossed) clinamen to translingualism to talking places, this book has a world-attending and word-spelunking energy I crave in poetry.

Stephanie Anderson, In the key of those who can no longer organize their environments (Horseless Press 2013). Call it cento, source work, or reassembled appropriation, this book knows how to balance its languages in a vibrant sonic think-space for social thought and bodies in peril and houses and history.

Doc Drumheller, 10 x (10 + -10) = 0 (The Republic of Oma Rapeti Press 2014). A complex and delightful document of lingual devotion and social mixing. Drumheller has assembled his 10 pamphlets produced over 10 years to make helixes of anagrams and energetic rhymes. The poet as seer and Shakespearean “fool” for cultural attention.

Sam Sampson:

This year I’ve been revisiting Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press, 2009). When first opening the book I was drawn to his use of collaged lines and the effortless sway between the personal and metaphysical. The topology, or bricolage of purloined texts adds to the rich texture and music of his poems. He suggested in a recent interview, that poetry is ‘having nothing to say, and saying it,’ explaining, he was more interested in a sense of music, than the drive towards a philosophic, or information based poetics.

I’ve also had the pleasure of reading two recent volumes from the American publisher Black Ocean: Zach Savich’s Century Swept Brutal, and Elisa Gabbert’s The Self Unstable.

At the local level, I really enjoyed Alice Miller’s collection The Limits (Auckland University Press, 2014), with its elliptical and economical syntax. The imagery is deceptively refractive, and (as Barbara Guest suggests), at its best, a circling, or delimitation of the frame extends the line beyond the page.

The second discovery was an event I was involved in for the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) LOUNGE #41, where the NZ based American poet Steven Toussaint read. His rhythms contain a remarkable subtlety, an unmistakable momentum of word and thing (word-ling). There are a number of his poems online, or you could search out his chapbook Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014).

Iain Sharp:

I was pleased to see Alan Brunton’s Beyond the Ohlala Mountains topping The Listener’s belated list of 2014 poetry books. With its breadth of vision, wit and musicality it tops my list too, but I’d also like to draw attention to a couple of Auckland University publications that The Listener did not mention.

Sam Sampson’s second book Halcyon Days is the brainiest local poetry, I reckon, since the untimely demise of Leigh Davis. Yes, it’s challenging work, but the reward is in peeling back the layers and discovering the care with which Sampson has chosen each phrase.

Kerry Hines’s debut, Young Country, not only pays tribute to (and reproduces some of the fascinating images of) the great underrated New Zealand photographer William Williams but also opens up new approaches to writing about our colonial past.
Marty Smith:

waha/mouth Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)

is breathtakingly, cracklingly alive. It should be read with a de-fibrillator. I get breath loss and my heart-beat jumps when the poems go leading into unexploded places, then all over again with wrenching images, like Tinkerbell

‘       I turn from black to white inside

my own limbs. Who makes this howl, whose

hindquarters drag like a bag of coal?’

Raw relationships are opened up, as in the itching madness of ‘Malady,’ and ‘running’ pulls me breathless

and still you caught me grabbed

my arm my clothes my woollen jersey unravelled as you

pulled until there was a thin gray thread

getting longer between us and the faster I ran

the colder I got

and the travelling sadness of this:

I miss you, It’s like a cave in this mouth.

It’s a terrible saxophone solo.

Read the back cover. I’d like to think that I read this book with a candle guttering in my mouth the whole way.

 Bird murder Stefanie Lash

I’m completely besotted. The first place I love it is the sound echo in the title, but really the first place I love it is the little embedded crime sticker. You can’t peel it off, can’t get away from it, because this is a post-colonial protest at the fate of the Huia. I have to admit to a nostalgia for the world of my great-aunt and my grandmother, who were full Victorian Gothic, so I might be a suspect judge. But my fascination really comes from the twisty linguistic inventiveness. I love how the protest is laid out in the conventions of a traditional murder mystery, but full of flavour in an amped up version of this genre. And yet, not. It’s laid out in lush and hallucinatory images, in gorgeous language. Look at this murder scene –

‘the man is grey, and a shining black concave meniscus

of blood has formed, like oil on water,

where he has dropped his whiskey glass

and the characters are absolutely skewered:

Mrs Cockatrice is rosy, lucent:

her guests, enchanted.

Mrs Teck’s lips peel off her teeth

in a real storm of delight.

Mr Cockatrice, always sheepish,

always just on the brink of a toast.

Not saying anything about the huia, that pleasure shall be left untouched for the reader. I will say, what a feat, to keep to the form so that the narrative feeds its own texture into the whole drama. I just love it.

 Tree Space Maria McMillan

I love how these poems are experiments with hushes and stops and gaps, so when I read it I get a sense of space, of joy in the richly observed world, in its breathing biology, as it were, in the stops of sadness which are a powerful reminder of what we must do to keep it.

‘The ocean is never

the same twice. You don’t know if you’ll open the door

on yellow fish flicking past, or a swarm of jellyfish little

fisted stomachs pulsing

I love how the poems sharply enact the sensations of their worlds, so the smell of the bush floor rises up in Tree Space

In the dark birds are heavier and we can hear the small valleys of

their footfalls.

It’s true that death and life smell the same here

so it gives me a slight creeping dread, but then it moves straight to ‘leap like a sugar glider’.

I love how the intricacies of scientific wonder carry such a pure joy

Joe tells me the flagella

in these new colonies

is trapped inside

so each daughter

makes a tiny hole in herself

and pushes her whole self through,

turns herself right side out

the opposite of the observations of our collective humanity –

‘ The kingdoms of life are often revised.

Humans are closer than turtles to dinosaurs.

Truth had two legs before it had four.

And I love how deceptively simple the cover is, itself anchored but floating. I happen to know Maria has knitted gloves of this cover.

Elizabeth Smither:

‘I am a poet who is a woman, not a woman poet’ Ruth Fainlight has said. I dip into her New and Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2010) every year for a voice that is warm and wise and tough. Last Christmas she sent me a card designed by her photographer son: stone angels in flight over a cemetery. I love to think of her wild dead brother, Harry, threatening to burn down the offices of Faber & Faber if they didn’t return the poems of his they were going to publish.

Chris Tse:

I’d like to name two books and one poetic curios that have reminded me this year of the possibilities and joy that poetry can bring. Reading them was like surveying a city from the top of a skyscraper – there’s a sense of wonderment mixed with danger as you grapple with a dizzying and unfamiliar view of the familiar. All three are daring, inventive bodies of work that reveal and give so much more with subsequent readings – the hallmark of all great poetry:

Bird Murder by Stefanie Lash (Mākaro Press, 2014)
Autobiography of a Marguerite by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle (Hue & Cry Press, 2014)
Pen Pal by Sugar Magnolia Wilson (Cats & Spaghetti Press, 2014)


Reina Whaitiri:

A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children published by Random House New Zealand.
This is a beautifully produced book. Everything works really well. The illustrations are absolutely delightful and will bring pleasure to any child, young or old. The poems themselves cover such a wide range of topics and they too will delight.

Dark Sparring by Selina Tusitala Marsh and published by AUP.
There is such a wealth of wisdom and profound insight in the poems presented here.
The CD included is an extra bonus and reminds us that poetry should be heard and not
only read quietly to one’s self.

Puna Wai Korero published by AUP.
The poems in this anthology reveal some deep-seated resentments and longings as well
as heart-felt love and desire. They offer insights into the hearts and minds of Maori, some living today and some who have passed on.

Kirsti Whalen:

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood Penguin, New York
A strange, beautiful navigation of a feminist dreamscape. Hilarious and moving in equal measure.

Bullet Hole Riddle by Miriam Barr Steele Roberts
The most arresting modern poetry collection I may have ever read, tackling abuse and consent with lyrical command.

Castaly by Ian Wedde  AUP
This collection predates me but I loved the challenge of it: the longer poems casting out in exploration and the shorter acutely observed.

A History of Silence Carrie Rudzinski  Self published
Rudzinski generally performs her work, but her words sing equally vibrantly from the page. This book is much like going on a road trip with someone you love, while questioning everything.

Sue Wootton:

Here my poetry picks for 2014. Comments for these first two are taken from my fuller reviews which appear in Takahe 82 and 83.

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle Autobiography of a Marguerite Auckland: Hue & Cry Press (2014).
This book-length poetic narrative speaks powerfully to the claustrophobic effect of chronic illness: the endless burrowing for meaning, the constant search for a sense of order, the fleeting glimpses of certainty which dissolve as soon as they’re probed. The usual orientation measures no longer apply: “Outside there is no weather…my watch has stopped.” Butcher-McGunnigle’s writing goes to the aching heart of disconnection and of longing for repair.

Janis Freegard The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider by. USA: Anomalous Press (2013).  Alice is frank and tart (actually “she’s a trollopy little tart”). She sets traps with words and makes you wriggle like heck when you get caught. Alice Works ought to be pinned above every writer’s desk. It tells what happens when Alice gets a real job. After a while Alice concludes: “Work is the sale of strength, of thought, of dexterity. Alice takes up writing. She sells her soul.”

Also: I have really enjoyed these 3 collections: Si no te hubieras ido/If only you hadn’t gone by Rogelio Guedea (with superb translations by Roger Hickin), Cold Hub Press 2014. A poetic sequence about absence, yearning, solitude and love: “I know you’re asleep while I’m writing this,/ there on the other side of the world, / that’s why I do it, just to see if we might bump into each other / in some corner of your dreams: otra vez.”

Parallel by Jillian Sullivan, Steele Roberts 2014. A collection which examines the warp, weft and weave of family, developed from the manuscript which won Sullivan the 2011 Kathleen Grattan award for a sequence of poetry: “how every kind of death we don’t desire / hangs like a mask above our stories, above our vows.”

Edwin’s Egg &other poetic novellas by Cilla McQueen, Otago University Press, 2014. What’s not to love here? This wee box, opened, spills pure delight: “The more the imagination grasps at the idea the greater the void created.”  Also: “The scones are satisfying.”


Giveaway books Halcyon Ghosts & waha | mouth… there are more to come

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Thanks to Auckland University Press I have randomly selected Harvey Molloy to get the copy of Sam Sampson’s Halcyon Ghosts and thanks to Victoria University Press I have randomly selected Nicola Eastbourne to get Hinemoana Baker’s  waha | mouth.

I have a number of giveaway copies for reviews I am doing when I get back from my Hot Spot Poetry Tour of NZ mid November (can’t promise any before then). I saw some of you ran into technical difficulties ‘liking’ or ‘commenting’ on this blog. Beyond my expertise sorry but I know if you follow the blog (click on follow down right hand side) it is easier. Someone else may give useful advice here.

Sam Sampson’s Halcyon Ghosts: Breathless and breathtaking


Photo Credit: Harvey Benge

Sam Sampson, Halcyon Ghosts, Auckland University Press, 2014

Sam Sampson’s new poetry collection, Halcyon Ghosts, brings together ‘thirteen shapes of knowing.’ It comprises thirteen poems that form various shapes or stamps upon the page. You can trace a bloodline to concrete poetry where the visual mark is as much a protagonist as the poem’s internal movement. You witness debts to the legacy of language poetry and you absorb the lyrical score. These poems are crafted by a poet who is part musician, part philosopher, part documentary filmmaker, part family archivist.

At times the physical detail is luminous — as though capturing the landscape, the living breathing world momentarily (‘white melodious throat’ ‘riparian light/ blinking on a dark field’ ‘ceramic wind chimes/ charred grape seeds’). Or snatches of action and activity whether strange or unsettling (‘picadored green people tethered to years’ ‘ghost moths generate night skermishes’). Words can be snapped in half across line breaks. These are poems caught in half-light, in fragmented sideways glances (‘to seize shadows I grab them by the sleeve’). Words zigzag across the page in discrete phrasing. Making authorial imprints. Stammering and staccato, as though this poet is out of breath, holding back, puffing out poems in little linguistic clouds.

In ‘The Kid,’ it is as though you can hear the click and stutter of Chaplin’s reels as the shifting frames catch light and dark (‘listen in-/tently to that blind/ mazy course/ running wild’). Colons are separated out to prolong the resting spots, the moment of pause (‘a mil    :       ‘). They act as little hinges, pivots in a collection where juxtaposition is a fertile device (‘Circles the expanse       expands dirt’ ‘pin-pricks of the world … name-sakes’). Such pairings provoke an oscillation of mind and eye, a semantic quiver, a visual twitch.

I loved the sequence, ‘Halcyon Ghosts,’ where the poem’s shapes imitate so perfectly the photographs of birds in flight upon the preceding pages. Here the words take pleasure in the measured steps of lift and fall.  These are poems of return, with the flight path etched in your mind ready to accept the swift wing beat of the bird. Glorious.

photo 3

photo 4

Elsewhere a horizon line imprinted on the page breaks a poem in two as though refracting and reflecting. Yes, the poems are visual gifts for the eye, but what instils a deeper imprint is the intellectual and lyrical movement. The language is eclectic and difficult, yet there is heart here. Life. Experience. Contemplation. Surreal twitches. Sam has refreshed the life and expectations of concrete poetry, he has a bloodline back to Language Poetry but has stepped out of its limitations and has composed a symphony in parts where words are substitutes for the musical notes of melody. Breathless and breathtaking.

Thanks to Auckland University Press I have a copy of this book to someone who likes or comments on this post (NZ addresses only).



Poetry Shelf Interviews Sam Sampson–I try to forget that I’m writing a poem and hopefully an intuitive intelligence takes over


Sam Sampson June 2014

Photo Credit: Roland Vink

Auckland University Press recently published Sam Sampson’s second poetry collection, Halcyon Ghosts. To celebrate this, Sam agreed to answer some questions for Poetry Shelf. I will post a review shortly.


Did your childhood shape you as a poet? What did you like to read? What else did you like to do?

I’m not sure my childhood shaped me as a poet. I had a pretty ordinary white middle-class NZ upbringing, living out in the wops (as the Waitakeres were called in those days). But now, looking back at the books, plus audio and visual stimulus, maybe there is a correlation to what I’m up to now.

Early on I was introduced to nursery rhymes from both grandmothers, and from books that survive, a combination of traditional fairy tales and fables. I also remember being an avid listener of the radio (1ZB stories) on a Sunday morning.

My paternal grandmother (Nana) lived in Mt Albert and had retained all of my father’s exercise books, school prizes, and books, and these were stored in my father’s childhood bedroom. This is were I started my extramural reading, primarily the standard Anglo-fare of children of my father’s generation: Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens (with pictures by Arthur Rackham), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

As much as these stories peppered my imagination there was the environment I grew up in at the bottom of South Titirangi Rd in West Auckland. There were the kauri, the tea-tree, the wood pigeons, tui…the Manukau (Jenkins Bay) on one side, and Little Muddy Creek on the other. As a child I had a magical upbringing. I swam in Little Muddy Creek, kayaked over to the dairy at Laingholm to buy ice cream, climbed trees, went fishing with uncles and friends…swam, surfed at Karekare, Piha, Anawhata, Whites, Whatipu, Bethells….


When you started writing poems as a young adult, were there any poets in particular that you were drawn to (poems / poets as surrogate mentors)?

I didn’t start out writing poems but song lyrics, which I suppose were early poems of a sort. A number of the songwriters I admired had either published prose, or poems, so I started to search out poets and thinkers they referenced.

In my late twenties I started sending poems out to poets and magazines. I flatted in a house where the owners had gone overseas and left an extensive library at our disposal. I remember reading Wallace Stevens (being transfixed by ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’), William Carlos Williams, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Walt Whitman, James K. Baxter, Stephen Spender, Michael Ondaatje, and The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (edited by Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen). It was here I discovered the poems of Allen Curnow and started to seek out his work, partly I think because of the discursive line he wrote, but also because of his distinctive and recognisable images of Karekare on Auckland’s West Coast, which had been familiar to me right through childhood. Later, after discovering my great-uncles were early members of the Karekare Surf Patrol, and my grandfather (a mechanic) repaired the surf club trucks, this gave a gravitas of sorts to the environs I grew up in and anchored the familial with Curnow’s type of philosophical topography.

In 1999 I sent an early batch of poems to Allen Curnow and received back a reply, where he wrote, amongst other things, that I’d sent him quite a remarkable variety of ‘contruptions’ (Auden’s word). Now, for me I was overwhelmed that Allen Curnow had taken the time to read my work and respond, but I couldn’t work out this mysterious word of Auden’s: ‘contruptions’ – was it like an interruption contrariwise, a continuing interruption, or disruption – or some other fantastical Auden word? At the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in May of 2001 I went to hear Allen Curnow read, and afterwards, queued to get my copy of Early Days Yet signed. When I reached the signing table I introduced myself, and as he was a little hard of hearing, repeated loudly and a number of times that he’d said my poetry was a series of contruptions (Auden’s word). He looked at me quizzically, and said, you mean ‘contraptions’…. it was then I realised his spidery, looping handwriting had turned the ‘a’ to a ‘u’. For two years I’d imbedded the notion of my poetry as being christened by Allen Curnow as a series of contruptions. Today it seems appropriate; maybe my work is a series of ‘contruptions’, somewhere in between a contraption, a disruption, an inter-ruption.


That is wonderful! Like a mishearing. Did university life (as a student) transform your poetry writing?

Yes, it was an immersive shock to the system. Not so much in the area of poetry writing but more the eclectic mix and match of subject matter. At the time I did my BA, and MA (I combined both papers in Philosophy and Ethnomusicology) I was lucky enough to have full year papers and this left enough time to explore a subject, to read books associated with the syllabus. This journey of discovery was the reason I found my way to literature, and especially to philosophers and poets.

While studying, I took a part-time job as a roadie and stage assistant for the local orchestra (The Auckland Philharmonia). For eight years I had access to a wonderful roster of orchestral rehearsals and performances. I couldn’t tell you exactly how it influenced my work, but talking and listening to musicians, conductors, and composers gave me a sense of how music could lift the notes off the page. I felt that as poetry is built around shifts of tempo and modulations of pitch, every gesture was connected to meaning and is an intuitive way of sound sculpting. This is not to say I felt poetry (my poetry especially) should ever purely be of the sound poetry tradition. I felt meaning inherently tied at the initial compositional stage, but this structure could be extended, until in some cases only a shimmer of the original meaning was left behind.


You have an MA in Philosophy and I do see philosophical undercurrents in your poetry — you are unafraid of embedded ideas. How do you view the relationship between philosophy and poetry in your own writing?

I started writing poetry in the last couple of years at university. I was more interested in Philosophy than taking papers in the English department (my degree has no papers from that department) although saying this, I was interested in philosophers who also wrote poetry and prose – especially the Continental Philosophy tradition, which articulated different formulations of the phenomenal and noumenal world…of empirical and non-empirical knowledge…


I love the way your poems exude joyfulness. In the power of words to delight and astound. To take us to unexpected places, poetry as an archaeological dig. What are key things for you when you write a poem?

I’ve always been interested in writing a poetry that evokes the joy of being found. But maybe joy could be extended to light…the refracted light in language that is unearthed. Sound is important for me in a poem, as is meaning and the shape of the text. I think as children we delight in this full range of possibilities and somewhere along the educational spectrum are conditioned toward a certain code of intelligence. I try to forget that I’m writing a poem and hopefully an intuitive intelligence takes over, and to use that wonderful John Ashbery analogy, a bucket is lowered down into a kind of underground stream flowing through the mind and is brought back to the surface. I try to let the language propel itself, not to worry initially about specific meaning, and when re-writing, to delight in unexpected slippage. As James Joyce said, when asked: ‘Aren’t there enough words for you in English?’ he replied: ‘Yes, there are enough, but they aren’t the right ones.’


Do you think your writing has changed since your debut collection?

Yes, definitely the writing has changed but carries over frames and referents from the last collection…my flow is going with time…as Leigh Davis wrote. I see myself as writing one book of poetry, with of course variations within the body of work.

Looking at this book I see a synchronicity, what others have called an analytic lyricism. I can join more dots when looking at the book as a whole, but saying that, I’m not sure how to describe the poems. It seems reasonable primary facts have been lost, other facticities I have created to replace forgotton fact, certain memories I have erased, or chosen to omit. When trying to chart poems, frames of reference will only take me so far, and images make me believe there was an event connected to each and every poem. I hope in this body of language I’ve let the subjects find themselves and inadvertently resurrected the dead. The dead here, I take to mean, not just those that have passed away during the writing of this book, but also the language that has been unearthed, the unearthed vestiges.

In coaxing this book into existence my maternal grandmother died, my daughter was born, and at the end of January, I took my father home to die. This book means something, but at the moment I’m too close to it, and I’m just not sure what, or even if it will ever be accessible to me.

People have told me my poetry will alter, not by any act of will, but because of a process, a process whereby living inevitably reconfigures one’s relationship to the world and to one’s sense of mortality and life. This book is a type of reel, a reel of life… in my beginning is my end… and the halcyon ghosts that manifest in this circuitry of life, live beyond their deaths – where names displaced by light / are dark but not lost….

Michael Hulse recently queried the status of certain poems in a review he did for New Zealand Books. In his mind, some poems weren’t in fact poems. How would you define poetry?

I’m not sure, as I haven’t seen that particular review. I know Michael and he is a very good poet and critic. I know from my perspective everything I set up to write as a poem, is a poem. I’m thinking here in the area of the conceptual arts, where Duchamp’s Fountain (porcelain urinal) is in fact an artwork when placed in the context of the gallery. I admire the work Kenny Goldsmith is doing with his ‘Uncreative Writing’ model, although I find it hard to produce pure conceptual work along those lines (I wrote a little more about this if anyone is interested: A Response). So to answer your question, I think it depends on the framework you set-up for ‘poetry’, and to my mind anything is possible.

Alternatively, I was reminded of what Allen Curnow said in an interview in the collection, Look Back Harder (1987):

…when one thinks or hopes one had brought off a poem of one’s own uncontaminated, it looks, at first, so utterly unlike anything one has ever read that one is worried about it – this can’t be poetry at all, it’s a curious sort of uncouth gangling kind of thing, and yet this is how it turned out. What has usually happened is that poem is definitely one’s own. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, only it’s one’s own.


At times dislocating in the sway between deeply familiar and disconcertinly not so. You have turned to the shape poem in your new collection. When I first opened your book, it felt like I was entering a field of beauty — in the formation of the poems on the page and the phrases snared in the corner of my eye. What fascinated you about shape poems?

As I see and hear the world through poetry, I let it take shape – so to me all poems are shape poems. The shapeliest in the book is the title poem ‘Halcyon Ghosts’, which is in counterpoint to photographer Harvey Benge’s Birds. Harvey’s bird series seemed to open up the possibilities of a type of presentational immediacy, and more generally, a formation, or frame for language. In this instance the words articulate, and are mimetic in loosely following the flight path of migrating birds (the bird’s the word) but in my work I hoped to disrupt the reader by starting the poem on the recto (right) page, then moving the poem to a more traditional left-right reading pattern. The words loosely follow nature (birds), until the last frame, where my stanza becomes nature: the words and birds are both committed and identically. (I was reminded here of the wonderful Ed Harris Pollock movie, when Jackson Pollock asked by his partner Lee Krasner on why he didn’t paint, or imitate nature, his response: ‘I am nature’.)


I love the phrase on the back of your book, ‘thirteen shapes of knowing.’ Can you expand upon this?

Thirteen, consciously, and unconsciously, became an important touchstone throughout the book. There are thirteen poems in the book, the cover still La lampada della nonna (Grandmother’s Lamp) was produced in 1913, there are references to thirteen lunar cycles, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, the sun travelling thirteen degrees across the sky, McCahon’s number poems, Rothko’s number titled poems, plus many of the stanzas add up to thirteen; for example: ‘The Tombstone Epitaph’ is written in XIII stanzas…thirteen ways, or cinematic vignettes of looking at the famous gunfight at O.K. Corral, and the subsequent pursuit of the Earp gang.

Throughout Halcyon Ghosts, I also looked to number thirteen as a graphical representation, which I hoped may move the reader to see the poem as more than just a semantic meandering, and as much, a symbolic, or figurative representation of this numerical value.

Just to continue with the numerological, or repetitive arrangement of the book; this book is dedicated to my maternal grandmother, and my daughter. My daughter Lucia, was born on Friday 13th, at 1:13 in the morning, in Room 13 at Auckland Hospital; my grandmother was born in London, on March 13th, 1920, and died in Auckland, on December 13th, 2009. The idea of repetition, of a loosely constructed numerical frame is part of the circuitry that makes up this book. I hoped the poems were both spontaneous and exacting – a reel of real…a dancing in chains.

Coincidentally, Halcyon Ghosts was launched on Friday 13 June and my last book Everything Talks, was also launched on Friday 13 June, six years earlier.


What NZ and international poets have mattered to you over the past year?

Much of my reading is grazing online journals and blogs, reading what’s there in front of me. The books on a small shelf next to my desk are books I revisit, or recent purchases…(on the shelf at this moment): Barbara Guest; Paul Muldoon; Wallace Stevens; John Ashbery; Gustaf Sobin; Geoffrey Hill; Peter Cole; John Cage; C.K.Stead; Michael Palmer; Murray Edmond; Anne Kennedy; Ian Wedde; T.S.Eliot; John Keats; Alice Miller; Samuel Beckett; Eliot Weinberger; Keith Waldrop; Leigh Davis; Zach Savich; Elisa Gabbert.


The constant mantra to be a better writer, is to write, write, write and read, read, read. You also need to live! What activities enrich your writing life?

At the moment it’s a busy bustling lifestyle, looking after my nearly four-year-old girl (who now insists the next book must contain at least one ‘dinosaur’ poem!). The beginning of this year was particularly demanding, working towards this publication and caring for my father who died in January.

In the summer months I try to spend as much time at the West Coast beaches and Waitakere Ranges. I love swimming in the ocean, and through November–April, I swim with a couple of friends at Cornwallis Beach at the Manukau Harbour entrance. There’s something invigorating about bobbing about in the ocean five hundred or so metres offshore and looking back. I’m also a keen sea kayaker and in March was lucky enough to spend four days kayaking in the Coromandel, in and around Cathedral Cove, and then in late April, four nights kayaking the magical Tutukaka coastline…Rocky Bay…Matapouri Bay…Whale Bay….


Yes, do try a dinosaur poem for her! Finally if you were to be trapped for hours (in a waiting room, on a mountain, inside on a rainy day) what poetry book would you read?

I was trapped in a hospital waiting room waiting for my mother who had an appointment. I think I was there for about five hours and luckily had just received in the mail the second volume of Robert Creeley’s Collected Poems 1975–2005 that starts with the poem, ‘Wellington, New Zealand’. It was a great read, but I prefer his first Collected (1945–1975) more for the radical and influential shifts in register.

But if trapped for hours anywhere, I would have to say the magnificent Collected Poems of Barbara Guest. In the introductory essay by Peter Gizzi, he quotes Barbara Guest:

The most important act of a poem is to reach further than the page so that we are aware of another aspect of art…. what we are setting out to do is delimit the work of art so that it appears to have no beginning and no end, so that it overruns the boundaries of the poem on the page.


Thanks for such generosity of response Sam.

Auckland University Press page

Sam’s website

July On the Shelf: Picks by Vincent O’Sullivan, Sue Wootton, Ros Ali, Sam Sampson

Vincent O’Sullivan: I can’t imagine moving further from the kind of poetry we tend to write in New Zealand, and the kind we probably mostly read ( allowing for the crass generalisation that of course implies!), than to what I’ve been so delighted by over the past couple of months in Ilan Stavans’ huge anthology, The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011). The Introduction is smart in the best sense, informative and challenging. Then seven hundred pages of poets from a dozen countries. There are the poets one can’t help but have come across, the marvellous so un-English figures like Neruda and Paz and Vallejo, but then so many others I didn’t know, and was bowled by – the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrede, say, whose ‘The Elephant’ is probably the best animal poem I have read. A book to open at random, where you’re hardly ever likely not to be snared.

Of poets closer to home, I’ve especially admired Caoilinn Hughes’ Gathering Evidence (Victoria University Press, 2014). We don’t have many writers so at ease with either the long line’s six or seven stresses, or with so sustaining narrative as poetry ( I mean narrative with the same qualities as good narrative in prose, and then more as well.) And this, with the taut, vivid phrasing of fine lyric. A book you come out of, feeling the horizon is that touch further than you thought.

Vincent O’Sullivan is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate. Victoria University Press released a collection of his short stories, The Families, earlier this year. You can see my review of it here.


Sue Wootton: A collection I’ve been re-reading with great pleasure recently is The Overhaul by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2012), winner of the 2012 COSTA Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the 2012 TS Eliot Prize.  It’s a book that gives you sharper eyesight, better hearing, that makes your body into compass and barometer.  Jamie’s voice in these poems is clear and concise, managing to appear almost matter-of-fact while also being elegant and lyrical. She gives equal weight to everything she scrutinises – to spider, roe deer, stag, osprey, hawk, swift, blackbird, weather-beaten clinker, bluebells, roses. A collection that seems to me be part rapture, part lament, it’s full of questions, like this from The Spider: “Who tore the night?/ Who caused this rupture?/ You, staring in horror/ – had you never considered/how the world sustains?”

My Poetry Book of the Winter this year is The 20th Century in Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae (Pegasus, 2013). This rich anthology opens in 1900 with Thomas Hardy and ends in 2000 with Jeffrey Harrison. In between it takes in a broad sweep of English language poets from a variety of countries. New Zealanders include Vincent O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither, A.R.D. Fairburn, Bill Manhire, James K Baxter and Katherine Mansfield. With almost 800 pages of poems, it’s a joy to open at random. Just now I picked it up to write about it and it fell open at Gwen Harwood. I read ‘Prize-Giving’ and closed the book. I picked it up again:  Tony Harrison (‘The Mother of the Muses’).  The third time, it gave me ‘The Steeple-Jack’ by Marianne Moore. You can’t really go wrong.

Sue Wootton is a Dunedin poet. Her latest venture is Out of Shape, a letterpress collaboration with Caren Florance of Ampersand Duck (Canberra). The exhibition of framed poems from this unbound book is on until July 4th at The Fix cafe in Frederick Street, Dunedin.  See website for details.

Ros Ali: It’s too hard to choose favourite books of poetry. Like trying to rank best friends. So I’ll cheat a little and tell you about two books I’ve dipped into the most over the last few months, to help inspire my students to enter ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’

Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) is a ‘portable travel companion’ housing numbers of my favourite poems from the popular UK Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human anthologies

Take Naomi Shihab Nye’s, “Kindness”, for example. I give this poem to all my students at the beginning of the year, hoping they, too, will look to it in difficult times and find:

… it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.


Another small and important book, an essential reader in the classroom, is Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini (Yale University Press, 2008).

Here, we are eased backwards and forwards in ‘conversation with the traditions,’ as Parini discusses the craft and experience of poets from Ancient Greece to modernist America. Of most significance, perhaps, for young people finding their identity in the world and on the page, Parini deals with poetic voice, which he perceives as ‘offer[ing] an antidote to the bludgeoning loud voices of mass culture … thus staking a claim for what used to be called the individual soul.’

Parini observes that poetry’s power and transcendence are internal. Poetry ‘doesn’t usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.’

I love that Parini gently nudges us to conclude that yes, poetry matters. It matters profoundly. Poetry allows, among other things, insight into the ‘substance of our lives…to see ourselves freshly and keenly.’

Ros Ali teaches English and runs a Writing Programme at St Cuthbert’s College. She also works with  Jo Emeney in the  Young Writers’ Programme, of the Michael King Writers Centre, offering writing workshops  for senior secondary students. Recently Ros and Jo ran series of student workshops  for New Kiwi Voices, sponsored by the Albert-Eden Local Board.


Sam Sampson:

Stunning debut of the repairing of a life, Leigh Davis (Otago University Press, 2010)

‘The only joy of poetry is the trance of language. All the rest is sentiment’

(Leigh Davis, Sunday Star Times, July 25, 2010)

The late Leigh Davis wrote this book after a major operation to remove a brain tumour. It charts not just the resurrection of language, but also the metamorphosis of language. Emerging from the chaos of trauma, the book takes us on a journey, the mapping of a new voice…the re-emergence of an old voice…the distillation of a polyphonic voice. Visually the introductory notebook pages ( Simple / Broken / Beautiful) preserve (collect, if you will) a sense of origins, contexts, which the new composition will never quite obscure.

As a composition it is authentic in its format of fourteen-line semi-autobiographical utterances. The body will die, but the language is an embodied presence. To progress we must surrender to such a presence and be comforted by incoherence. Delivered in almost meditative flashbacks we feel the bumps and joins (of Davis’s favourite texts) trace the surface of the poem, and feel where one piece of language meets another – where texture and temperature change.

The proem, or ars poetica that begins the book is both elusive and revelatory: I want to reflect what I live with, to extract representation’s / subtle body in even the most intimate moments.

By the Bias of Sound Selected Poems: 1974 – 1994, Gustaf Sobin (Talisman House, 1995)

When I first encountered Gustaf Sobin on the Shearsman Press website, I was so moved by his clarity of vision that I used a fragment as an epigraph for my first book (wanting to say / wanting to / hear/ what it is that / I wanted to say), and when he died in 2005, dedicated a poem to him in my new book. Sobin was an expatriate American poet who spent most of his adult life in France, moving to a small hillside village in Provence, near the home of Rene´Char, whom he admired greatly. His syntax is to break the line, the word, and embody language, such that it is never inert. Nouns become verbs, the inanimate becomes animate with each unit of breath. As Heidegger’s investigation into ‘Being’ (Dasein), Sobin’s poetry attempts to strip away artifice and provide a musical scaffolding for the thought-speech continuum. One of my all time favourite poems is Sobin’s ars poetica: ‘The Earth As Air: An Ars Poetica’.

An Elemental Thing, Eliot Weinberger (New Directions, 2007)

Reading Weinberger was like turning a multifarious kaleidoscope that throws up new angles with each viewing. Thirty-five prose fragments / essays (including the Preface) where the only rule is that the information is verifiable. It reminded me of my early studies in ethnomusicology and the discoveries of ethnomusicologist William P. Malm’s – Music Cultures of the Pacific. The Near East and Asia – I returned to as an attentive explorer. As with Malm’s investigations, Weinberger’s poetic essays both narrate and articulate liminality inside and outside the frame of reference. Where does the text / key take us? Is the music even dictated by a key? As a form, does the prose element restrain the voice or accelerate the vision?

Century Swept Brutal, Zach Savich (Black Ocean, 2013) and The Self Unstable, Elisa Gabbert (Black Ocean, 2013)

I’ve just received two volumes from the small U.S. press Black Ocean.

The first by Zach Savich stakes out a fractured quality of mind; unsettling, and responsive, it is at once being consciousof its own consciousness.

He writes: …Beauty being cause / not effect; not perceived / perceived with / Century-swept brutal, the new flags / dry on wires.

He sings: Asters in the sill / hat brim thin. / Willow’s the only green for a time. / I place in a small envelope. / I gauge the season by what is in my hands…

Elisa Gabbert’s prose blocks, build a frame for the self, the body framed, the language re-framed. An alphabetically arranged index at the end of the book throws the reader toward a referable lexicon of subject matter: If information has replaced the story, what will replay information?

From ‘Enjoyment Of Adversity: Love & Sex’:

Girls want to be beautiful. Boys want to be powerful. In other words, everyone wants to be powerful. The appeal of Houdini and lingerie is the same: The more straps you wear, the nakeder you look. The only natural responses to vulnerability are love and violence.

Sam Sampson‘s latest poetry collection, Halcyon Ghosts, was recently published by Auckland University Press. I will post an interview with Sam this week and review his collection shortly.