“Poetry collections published in Aotearoa in 2020 show a wealth of exceptional and original work. It’s an exciting situation for New Zealand poetry. The four shortlisted collections are striking, all exhibiting an acute global consciousness in difficult times,” says Poetry category convenor of judges Dr Briar Wood.
I was so excited about the poetry longlist, I spent the last few months celebrating each poet on the blog. What sublime books – I knew I would have a flood of sad glad feelings this morning (more than on other occasions) because books that I have adored were always going to miss out. I simply adored the longlist. So I am sending a big poetry toast to the six that didn’t make it – your books will have life beyond awards.
I am also sending a big poetry toast to the four finalists: your books have touched me deeply. Each collection comes from the heart, from your personal experience, from your imaginings and your reckonings, from your musical fluencies. The Poetry Shelf reviews are testimony to my profound engagement with your poems and how they have stuck with me.
Over the next weeks I am posting features on the poets: first up, later this morning, Tusiata Avia.
Mary and Peter Biggs CNZM are long-time arts advocates and patrons – particularly of literature, theatre and music. They have funded the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry at Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters since 2006, along with the Alex Scobie Research Prize in Classical Studies, Latin and Greek. They have been consistent supporters of the International Festival of the Arts, the Auckland Writers Festival, Wellington’s Circa Theatre, the New Zealand Arts Foundation, Featherston Booktown, Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly the New Zealand Book Council), the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Featherston Sculpture Trust and the Kokomai Arts Festival in the Wairarapa. Peter was Chair of Creative New Zealand from 1999 to 2006. He led the Cultural Philanthropy Taskforce in 2010 and the New Zealand Professional Orchestra Sector Review in 2012. Peter was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for arts governance and philanthropy in 2013.
Tusiata Avia reads ‘Massacre’ from The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press, 2020)
Tusiata Avia is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s writer. Her previous poetry collections are Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004; also staged as a theatre show, most recently Off-Broadway, winning the 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year), Bloodclot (2009) and the Ockham-shortlisted Fale Aitu | Spirit House (2016). Tusiata has held the Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Hawai‘i in 2005 and the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury in 2010. She was the 2013 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, and in 2020 was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts.
CONGRATULATIONS to all the poets. This is the best longlist I have seen in years. I have loved all these books to a sublime degree. I am also delighted to see a mix of university presses and smaller publishers, and those inbetween. I plan to review Hinemoana and Karlo’s books over the coming weeks (Goddess Muscle, Karlo Mila, Huia Press and Funkhaus, Hinemoana Baker, Victoria University Press).
For end-of-year Poetry Shelf wraps, I have usually invited a swag of writers to pick books they have loved. It has always turned into a mammoth reading celebration, mostly of poetry, but with a little of everything else. This year I decided to invite a handful of poets, whose new books I have loved in 2020, to make a few poetry picks.
My review and interview output has been compromised this year. I still have perhaps 20 poetry books published in Aotearoa I have not yet reviewed, and I do hope to write about some of these over summer.
The 8 Poets
Among a number of other terrific poetry reads (Oscar Upperton’s New Transgender Blockbusters for example), here are eight books that struck me deep this year (with my review links). Tusiata Avia’s The Savager Coloniser (VUP) is the kind of book that tears you apart and you feel so utterly glad to have read it. Tusiata has put herself, her rage, experience, memories, loves, prayers, dreads into poems that face racism, terrorism, Covid, inequity, colonialism, being a mother and a daughter, being human. An extraordinary book. Rhian Gallagher’s Far-Flung (AUP) is a sumptuous arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months. Her poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the contemplative in poems that reflect upon the land, experiences, relationships.
Rata Gordon‘s Second Person (VUP) is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. Reading Mohamed Hassan’s new collection, National Anthem (Dead Bird Books), opens up what poetry can do. It widens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you think. It gets you listening. It makes you think about things that matter. Humanity. Family. Soil. Ahh!
Bill Manhire‘s Wow (VUP) will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters. The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you. Like Rhian’s collection this is a book of poetry astonishments. Natalie Morrison‘s (VUP) debut collection Pins is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, resonant white space, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. I filled with joy as I read this book.
Jackson Nieuwland‘s I am a Human Being (Compound Press), so long in the making, lovingly crafted with the loving support of friends, with both doubt and with grace (think poise, fluency, adroitness), this book, in its lists and its expansions, moves beyond the need for a single self-defining word. I knew within a page or two, this book was a slow-speed read to savour with joy. Nina Powles‘s Magnolia (Seraph Press) is the book I am currently reading. I have long been a fan, from Girls of the Drift to the glorious Luminscent). Nina’s new book is so immensely satisfying as it navigates home and not-home, identity, history, myth, the lives of women – with characteristic nimbleness, heavenly phrasing, open-heart revelations, the senses on alert, the presence of food, multiple languages. Reading bliss!
The poets and their picks
I’m a terrible book buyer. I tend to read books given to me (because I’m cheap like that) and the shopping-bag full of books my cousin, playwright, Victor Rodger, lends to me on the regular. He has the best taste! I should probably be a better reader of New Zealand poetry in particular, but I reckon I’ve got enough things to feel guilty about.
The top three on my list of books I have read this year and love:
Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)
I love the way Hinemoana uses language to make the ethereal and the mysterious. I’m happy to not immediately be able to pin down meaning; her language allows me to be suspended between what it does to me and what it means. Poems like the incantatory Aunties and Mother – which I think of as more ‘rooted’ – make me want to sit down immediately and write a poem. In fact that is exactly what I did do when I read this book. I love a book that makes me write.
An American Sunrise Joy Harjo (WW Norton & Co)
An American Sunrise is Joy Harjo’s most recent book of poetry. Joy is Poet Laureate of the United States. I love everything Joy Harjo has written. And I mean everything. She Had Some Horses (from an early book of the same name) is one of favourite poems of all time. Elise Paschen says of her, “ Joy Harjo is visionary and a truth sayer, and her expansive imagination sweeps time, interpolating history into the present.”. I would add to that she is taulaaitu, mouth-piece for the ancestors, gods and spirits. While you’re reading Joy Harjo’s poetry, read Crazy Brave, her wonderful autobiography. It will stay with you forever.
National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)
When I was looking for favourite lines in this book, I couldn’t decide, sooo many – like small poems in themselves. Mohamed speaks with an iron fist in a velvet glove. His poetry is elegant and beautiful and it tells the damn truth. Someone needs to tell the damn truth – about March 15, about being Muslim in New Zealand (and in the entire western world), about the things that happen so close to us – and inside us – that are easy (and more comfy) to avert our eyes from.
Some favourite lines from White Supremacy is a song we all know the words to but never sing out loud: ‘Please come and talk on our show tomorrow/ no don’t bring that up/…
‘This isn’t about race/ this is a time for mourning/ this is about us/ isn’t she amazing/ aren’t we all’…
‘Let us hold you and cry/ our grief into your hijabs’…
Who can tell these stories in this way but a good poet with fire in his fingers, love and pain in equal measure in his heart and feet on the battleground?
There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce Morgan Parker (Tin House)
I have to add, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker to every list I write forever. In my opinion, no reader of poetry should miss this. If it doesn’t grab you by the shoulders, the heart, the brain, the belly – you might be dead. From the epigraph: ‘The president is black/ she black’ (Kendrick Lamar). Morgan Parker is PRESIDENT.
The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (HarperCollins) edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris features translations of 20th century poets from around the world and is packed with surprises.
Amidst all the books I have enjoyed during 2020, this is the one that I have read and re-read and continue to come back to. It was first published in 2010. I have been slow in coming to the book.
When a poem in another language is re-cast into English, through the empathy and skill of a translator, it seems to unsettle notions of line, rhythmn, word choice and form. Translation pushes and tugs at the boundaries of the ‘rules’ and introduces a kind of strangeness. This strangeness I experience as an opening; a feeling of potential, slippery as a an eel to articulate. It recalibrates predetermined notions and generates excitement about what a poem can do or be.
There are well-known names here: Cavafy, Lorca, Akhmatova, Ritsos, Milosz, Symborska among others. There are also many poets previously unknown to me, and many whose work is either out of print or difficult to source. It’s a diverse, inspiring array of poetic voices and, as Kaminsky says in the introduction, puts us ‘in conversation with a global poetic tradition’.
Making discoveries is one of the great pleasures of anthologies. I now have a brand new ‘to read’ list.
When I’m reading something that inspires me, I have the urge to inhabit it somehow. I find that entering into a creative process by writing with, and around, another’s words helps me to absorb them into my internal landscape. This poem was created with snippets of some of the poetry I have met recently.
Soon, we are night sailing (Hunter, p. 71)
This is the closest you can get to it:
the void, the nothing,
the black lapping mouth of the sea
and the black arching back of the sky. (Hunter, p. 71)
One still maintains a little glimmer of hope
Deep down inside
A tiny light
About the size of a speck
Like a distant star
Is spotted on the horizon this dark night (Boochani, p. 26)
Swish swish swish
as quiet as a fish. (Ranger, p. 13)
… holy women
on the shore –
long having practiced the art
of replacing hearts
and song (Walker, p. 7)
Today you are tumbling towards her like the ocean.
… you are becoming nearer and nearer to someone other
than yourself. (Hawken, p. 49)
I have … imagined my life ending,
or simply evaporating,
by being subsumed into a tribe of blue people. (Nelson, p. 54)
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017, Picador). (Not strictly poetry, but the book feels so much like a long poem to me). Line breaks added by me.
No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (2020, Picador).
‘Autumn Leaves’ by Laura Ranger. In A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children edited by Paula Green (2014, Random House).
Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning by Alice Walker (1975, The Women’s Press).
Small Stories of Devotion by Dinah Hawken (1991, Victoria University Press).
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009, Jonathan Cape). Line breaks added by me.
Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press)
A few weeks ago, I sat in the audience at a WORD Christchurch event and watched our former poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh read a poem from Tusiata Avia’s new collection. It began as such:
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole
FUCK YOU, BITCH.
The hall fell pin silent and a heavy fog of discomfort descended from the ceiling, and I sat in the corner brimming with mischievous glee. It was a perfect moment, watching two of the country’s most celebrated poets jointly trash the country’s so-called ‘founder’ in the most spiteful way imaginable. The audience squirmed and squirmed and I grinned and grinned.
This is how Avia’s book begins, and it never lets up. As the title subtly implies with a hammer, Avia has things she wants to say, and doesn’t care how people feel about them. She delights in the spiteful, burrows down into the uncomfortable and the impolite and pulls out nuggets of painful truths with her bare hands. They are all truths that must be said bluntly and Avia drills them home.
In Massacre, Avia reflects on her youth fighting the demons of Christchurch, and asks us if our ‘this is not us’ mantra is divorced from the history carried in the land, haunted instead by the white spirits that rose to claim lives on March 15.
The book crescendos with How to be in a room full of white people, a dizzying poem that traps us in a single moment in time and forces us to witness and squirm and eventually, hopefully, understand what it is like to be the only brown body in a foreign space, in all its literal and metaphorical significance.
This has been my most cherished book this year, bringing together Tusiata Avia’s firecracker wit and her uncanny gift of conjuring worlds that feel vivid in their weight and poignancy. Abandoning all diplomacies, this is a blazing manifesto for honest and confrontational poetry that speaks with an urgency that puts me as a writer to shame, and demands more of me at once.
Jenny Lewis, Gilgamesh Retold, (Carcanet)
I love the way poetry re-visions the past, especially the deep past. I’m thinking of books like Matthew Francis’s reworking of the Welsh epic The Mabinogi and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a book that abandons the main storyline of Homer’s Iliad in favour of narrating the death scenes of minor characters, accompanied by extra helpings of extended simile. I’d always known about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I have owned for about 40 years in a yellow 1960 Penguin paperback. I’ve hardly opened it, but it’s one of some nine translations of the poem that Jenny Lewis has consulted for Gilgamesh Retold, published by Carcanet some four thousand years after the stories first circulated in oral form. (Her publisher at Carcanet, Michael Schmidt, has himself written a much admired book about the poem’s origins and afterlife)
Locally Dinah Hawken has worked with this ancient material, particularly writing about Inanna, the goddess of beauty and fertility and, sometimes, war, who is one of the major figures in the Gilgamesh cycle. Dinah’s feminist sense of the ancient stories accords with Jenny Lewis’s decision, as the blurb says, to relocate the poem “to its earlier oral roots in a Sumerian society where men and women were more equal, … [where] only women were allowed to brew beer and keep taverns, and women had their own language – emesal.”
It’s as well Inanna has such a significant role in Gilgamesh, for otherwise it would be a tale about male adventuring and bonding (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the discovery that even the greatest heroes can never overcome death. The world of Gilgamesh also gives us a Flood, which matches and in some ways outdoes the Old Testament. I love the way Jenny Lewis has retold these stories. She doesn’t try to pad them out to produce the sorts of coherence and pacing that contemporary readers and movie-goers find comfortable, while her phrasings have an unreductive clarity and a genuinely lyrical grace. The most audacious thing she has done, and has carried off brilliantly, is to use different metrical forms to reflect the ways in which a range of different custodians/retellers have voiced and revoiced the story. You admire the 21st-century poet’s craft even as she inducts you into a baffling and unfamiliar world. All stories, Gilgamesh Retold tells us, are made by many voices, and the best of them will journey on through many more.
And now I must try and summon up the courage to give the latest version of Beowulf a go!
Gregory Kan, Under Glass(Auckland University Press)
My esteemed colleague, with one hand around his Friday swill-bottle: ‘I hate poetry – no one cares, no one reads it anymore.’
Gregory Kan, with two suns infiltrating the long ride on the train to Paekākāriki, illustrates otherwise: Under Glass lulls like a really disquieting guided meditation.
After lockdown, it is the first book I read outside our ‘bubble’. Threading through an internal landscape, somehow a place I recognise. ‘Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun is eating its way out from inside me.’
Certain lines, with their mystical insistence, snag on me and come back again from time to time: ‘Everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.’ It’s as if some lines have been dreaming of themselves. The book invites a gentle inspection. A glass bead held right up against the eye. A shutter flipped open over a stark interior.
‘When you move a look moves inside me and eats there what I eat.’
Once, a kind individual in Paekākāriki, their hands busy with a teapot, told me: ‘Those who know what it is, fall on it like starving people.’
When Litcrawl comes, we make our way to some of the events. The room has sucked a crowd in. Spells for 2020, with Rebecca Hawkes, Rata Gordon, Stacey Teague, Arihia Latham, Rachel McAlpine and Miriama Gemmell (thank you for your entrancing words), reminds me of how poetry is still something people might come in search of. Visitations of bees, airline heights and morphing walls. There is a sense of relief.
A crowd still feels like a dream, and a dream still feels like the sea. Gregory writes that ‘the sea is a house made of anything. The sea is a story about anything, told by someone unfit for storytelling. More than what I can know, and much more than I can understand.’
Under Glass, which wasn’t exactly written for this year (no ordinary year), seems to slot into it.
My steamed colleague, with one hand steadying the banister: ‘I guess Bob Dylan is okay, though.’
Note: I asked my colleague’s permission for quoting him. He said he was fine with it, as long as a mob of angry poets didn’t come knocking.
2020 was the year we finally got a book from Hana Pera Aoake (A bathful of kawakawa and hot water Compound Press). I had been waiting for this for so so long. It’s a taonga that I am incredibly grateful for. Ever since I first read Hana’s work they have been one of my favourite writers. Their writing is both clever and wise, of the moment and timeless, pop culture and fine art, Aotearoa and international.
This is a book I will be returning to over and over again for inspiration, electrification, nourishment, and comfort. I would recommend it to anyone.
Other poetry books I read and loved this year: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, The Book of Frank by CA Conrad, hoki mai by Stacey Teague, Hello by Crispin Best, and Head Girl by Freya Daly Sadgrove.
Nina Mingya Powles
For most of this year I could only read things in fragments. I could only hold on to small parts of poems, essays, short stories in my head before they floated away. This year I sought out poetry by Indigenous writers. Of these two books, the first I read slowly, dipping in and out like testing the surface of cool water. The other I read hungrily all at once.
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Graywold Press) reminded me why I write poetry, at a time when writing anything at all felt impossible. Diaz’s heavy, melodic love poems circled around my head for days: “My lover comes to me like darkfall – long, / and through my open window.” But it is her writing about water and the body that changed me. In this book, water is always in motion, a current that passes through time, memory and history. Her long poem “The First Water of the Body” is a history of the Colorado River, a sacred river: “I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving with me right now.”
A bathful of kawakawa and hot water by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press) came to me when I needed it most, nourishing me and warming me. I haven’t yet held a copy of the book, but I read it on my laptop over two days and have carried parts of it around in my body ever since: “I speak broken French and Português into the broken yellow gloaming.” A bathful of kawakawa and hot water is a searing, lyrical work of poetry, memoir, and political and cultural commentary. Like the title suggests, it was a balm for me, but also a reminder of the ongoing fight for our collective dream of a better world, and most importantly, that “racism is not just a product of psychological malice, but a product of capitalism.”
Tusiata Avia, The Savage ColoniserBook, Victoria University Press, 2020
I have just read Selina Tusitala Marsh’s brilliant review of The Savage Coloniser Book at the Academy of New Zealand Literature, and if you read one book review this year, from first line to last line, read this. It pays sublime tribute to Tusiata Avia’s book at a personal level and at a wider level. This is a taster:
The Savage Coloniser Book poetically documents our wounds, and by doing this provides poetic catharsis. Avia goes through the wound – colonisation, slavery, genocide and racism – and back through it several times. It’s an uncomfortable read in many places. Some might avert their eyes, refuse to lift off their own bandages to see, but it’s a wound that belongs to all of us and one shared by people of colour the world over. These are wounds that leak into our day-to-day lives, whether you’re paying in a bookshop or praying in a mosque, whether you are having coffee with blithely racist friends or standing in a protest line.
Tusiata Avia places herself – her ravaged heart, her experience, wounds, scars, thinking, feeling, her urge to speak, sing, perform, make poetry, no matter the price, the energy needed, holding history out, with tempered rage, with unadulterated rage, quietly, loudly, singing, shining, her heart on the travesties, the coloniser, the colonised, on the Pākehā who crossed lines into abuse, and into the light there, right there the unspeakable abuse that needs to be heard, whacking Captain Cook from his pedestal, sighting Ihumātao, the Australian bush fires, ‘The white fella houses go up in smoke. // They start living in caravans / like they’re the dispossessed’, and the refugees, in lines of sight, heart lines ear lines, ah the point of the blade when you hear the Manus Island refugees, the plundering of lives and loves and dreams and ways of being across time, the plundering of the land, the living growing nurturing land, ‘you might even have to remove a mountain’ to get to the ore, Jacinda’s house colonised by a Polynesian family, worried daughter listening to Jacinda and her daily Covid briefing, translating for worried mother, worried daughter, finding her mother’s Broadsheets, the gutted woman, the abortioned woman, her lovers, her daughter who wants her mother to be more specific, but she is disabled with epilepsy, saying thingy to beloved daughter, disinfectant wiping surfaces for her beloved mother, in the time of Covid, in the time of reckoning, the near death, again the near death, epilepsy on the floor, her passed father a presence, the white people who claim white as colour, and more, and worse, and notes for the critic with their suffocating paradigms and agendas, racism, and standing in the room with the white people who are finding it hard to be white and just won’t shut up, and she places a prayer, a prayer for water, her daughter, the stars, lungs, child, air, the reader and more – in her poems, in these necessary poems.
‘Protest is telling the truth in public … We use our bodies, our words, our art and our sounds both to tell the truth about the pain we endure and to demand the justice that we know is possible.’ DeRay Mckesson, On the Other Side of Freedom (quoted at front of book)
I’m forcing myself to buy one packet of toilet paper
and four cans of baby beetroot. A woman is taking photos of all
the different kinds of sanitary pads to send to her daughter.
She steps back and bumps into me. I’m trying not to freak out,
I’m forcing myself to walk slowly around the supermarket
walk slowly walk slowly walk slowly.
I’m going back to the health and beauty aisle and searching for
Rescue Remedy and not finding it
I see a guy I met on Tinder ages ago and didn’t sleep with
and he says, Well, how do you tell the story?
and gives me a look as if it is a thing that neither of us
could know, as if it is a thing perhaps no one could know.
In the carpark a couple of young bogans
stick their heads out of the car window
and cough as loud as they can, laugh and drive off.
I’m reading what the microbiologist has said about
You have to let it sit for ten minutes
or you’re just moving the bacteria around.
I thought I was doing a good job keeping my mum safe.
I thought I was keeping her safe, so if she does die,
at least I will know I did all the right things
but I’ve just been moving it around.
I’m listening to the bugle call in the kitchen.
Jesus isn’t coming back or Armageddon
or even the end of Level 4
but here is the moment of silence, so I stop
whatever ten-minute meal I am making
and remember those who have fallen: the Anzacs and the Covid
cluster down the road at the Rosewood Rest Home.
Tusiata Avia from The Savage ColoniserBook Victoria University Press, 2020
Tusiata Avia is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s writer. Her previous poetry collections are Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004; also staged as a theatre show, most recently Off-Broadway, winning the 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year), Bloodclot (2009) and the Ockham-shortlisted Fale Aitu | Spirit House (2016). Tusiata has held the Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Hawai‘i in 2005 and the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury in 2010. She was the 2013 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, and in 2020 was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts. Her latest collection, The Savage ColoniserBook, has just been published by Victoria University Press.
Tusiata Avia is a poet, performer and writer. She has published three books of poetry, a chapbook, three children’s books and is included in over 100 anthologies, journals and online publications. Tusiata has held a number of writers’ residencies and awards, including the CNZ Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at University of Hawai’i and the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Known for her dynamic performance style, she wrote and then performed Wild Dogs Under My Skirt as a one-woman show (2002-2009). In 2016 it became a multi award-winning play for 6 women, directed by Anapela Polata’ivao. In January 2020 Wild Dogs Under My Skirt made its American debut, Off-Broadway.
‘We are making our grandchildren’s world with our words. We
perceive a world in which everyone sits at the table together, with enough for everyone.
We will make this country great again.’
Joy Harjo from ‘Advice for Countries, Advanced, Developing and falling’ in An American Sunrise (2019)
A weekend in Wellington is always a treat – especially when there are writers and readers events on. I had a blue-sky, social-charging time and I loved it. Laurie Andersonon the Friday night delivered an improvised platter of musical quotations with a handful of musicians that together created a wow blast of sound and exquisite individual turns on percussion, strings, keyboards. Ah transcendental. Just wonderful. Read Simon Sweetman‘s thoughts on the night – he describes it far better than I can.
One bowl of muesli and fruit, one short black and I was all set for a Saturday of listening to other authors. First up Coming to our Senses with Long Litt Woon(The Way through theWoods) andLaurence Fearnley (Scented). Laurence is on my must-read stack by my reading sofa. Her novel engages with the landscape by way of scent, sparked perhaps by by her long interest in the scent of the outdoors. I loved this from her: ‘Writing about the South Island is a political act – I’m digging my heels in and see myself as a regionalist writer’. I also loved this: ‘I’m not a plot-driven novelist. I tend to like delving into sentences. I like dense descriptions. I imagined the book as dark brown.’
Next went to a warm, thoughtful, insightful conversation: Kiran Dass and Jokha Alharthi (Celestial Bodies). Fabulous!
And of course my poetry highlight:Selina Tusila Marsh in conversation with USA Poet LaureateJoy Harjo. I had been reading Joy in preparation for my Poetry Live session and utterly loved her writing. This is how I introduced her on Sunday:
Joy Harjo is a performer, writer (and sax player!) of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She’s the current US Poet Laureate with many awards and honours and has published nine poetry collections, a memoir, a play, produced music albums. She lives in Tulsa Oklahoma where she is a Tulsa Artist Fellow. Reading Joy’s poems, words are like a blood pulse as they question and move and remember – in place out of place in time out of time. I have just read Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings and An American Sunrise. This was what I was thinking when we have to endure the multiple offensiveness of Trump in our faces even at the bottom of the world to pick up Joy’s poetry is a balm that takes you behind and beyond and above and below into a different USA and it is heartbreaking and wounding and the poems might be like rooms where you mourn but each collection is an opportunity for breathtaking body anchoring travel that allows you to see and feel afresh. Joy’s poetry is so very necessary, If you read one poem this weekended read ‘How to Write a Poem in a Time of War’ from An American Sunrise.
But if you went on Saturday night you got to hear Joy read a good sized selection of poems, including the poem I mention above! Joy’s response to her appointment as the first Native American Poet Laureate in USA: ‘a profound announcement for indigenous people as we’ve been so disappeared. I want to be seen as human beings and this position does that. Human beings write poetry. Even if it’s oral, it’s literature.’
So many things to hold close that Joy offered: ‘No peace in the world until all our stories have a place, until we all have a place of respect.’
She suggested we could think of poems as ‘little houses, little bird houses for time grief joy heartbreak anything history what we cannot hold. Go to poetry for times of transformation, to celebrate and acknowledge birth, to acknowledge death. We need poetry.’
Joy: Indigenous poets are often influenced by oral traditions – a reading voice singing voice flute voice more holistic.
Joy: You start with the breath. Breath is essentially spirit.
Joy: You learn about asking, asking for help.
Joy: Probably the biggest part is to listen. You have to be patient.
Joy: The lessons get more intense.
Joy: If you are going to listen to a stone, what range is that?
My energy pot was on empty so was in bed by 8 pm, and so very sadly missed Chris Tse’s The Joy Of Queer Lit Salon. From all accounts it was a breathtaking event that the audience want repeated.
Sunday and I hosted Paula Green’s Poetry Shelf Live.Lynn Jenner was unwell (I was so looking forward to hearing her read as her inventive and moving Peat is so good). My dear friend Tusiata Avia was in town coincidentally so she stepped in and read instead along with Karlo Mila, Simon Kaho, Gregory Kan, Jane Arthur, Tayi Tibble and Joy Harjo.
I love the poetry of my invited guests and got to sit back and absorb. I laughed and cried and felt the power of poetry to move in multiple directions: soft and loud, fierce and contemplative. Ah if a poem is like a little house as Joy says, it is a house with windows and doors wide open, and we are able to move through and reside there as heart, mind and lungs connect.
A friend of Hinemoana Baker’s from Berlin came to me at the end crying and speaking through tears and heaving breath about how moved she was by the session. I got what she was saying because I felt the same way. I guess for all kinds of reasons we are feeling fragile at the moment – and poetry can be so vital. After four years of Wild Honey reading, writing, conversing and listening I have decided the connective tissue of poetry is love aroha. I felt and said that, ‘We in this room are linked by poetry, by a love of it, and that matters enormously’. I felt that at this session.
So thank you Wellington – for all the book fans who supported the events. For the poets who read with me.
I also want to thank Claire Maybe and her festival team. Claire has such a passion for books and such a wide embrace, you just feel the love of books, stories, poetry, ideas, feelings. Yes I would have LOVED to hear Elizabeth Knox, Witi Ihimaera, Lawrence Patchett and Kate Tempest (for starters) on at other weekends but this was a highlight of my year and I am so grateful.
‘Come on Poetry,’ I sigh, my breath
whitening the dark. ‘The moon is sick of you.’
We walk the white path made of seashells
back to the orange light of the house.
‘Wait,’ I say at the sliding door. ‘Wait.’
Hinemoana Baker from ‘manifesto’ in waha / mouth (2014)
a collective poem made up on the spot by NZ Booksellers
On Sunday I was a key-note presenter with poet Gemma Browne at the booksellers conference in Auckland. The conference theme was Creating Communities – which feels really important as both an adult and children’s author. I dedicated Wild Honey to four women: Elizabeth Caffin, my first publisher; bookseller Carole Beu who has done so much for women readers and writers through The Women’s Bookshop; Michele Leggott who has brought women’s poetry to light and has written dazzling poetry of her own; Tusiata Avia who has inspired young and older women as both a teacher and inspiring poet, and who is a dear friend.
Most of my time as a writer is private, secret, quiet, and I like it like that. It is the writing process that gives me the greatest joy as a poet – not winning prizes or being famous or getting picked for anthologies or festivals. These can all be lovely surprises that give your ego little boosts, and more importantly boost book sales, but nothing beats that moment when pen hits paper and the words start flowing and you think – Where did that come from? How did I write that?
Yet I also write in multiple communities and that is important to me. I have a number of publishing families for a start. Then there are the two communities I have created through my blogs – Poetry Box and Poetry Shelf – that are made up of diverse readers and writers. I wanted to create a go-to place for poetry because poetry was becoming less and less visible in the media. Books would be published and I wouldn’t know unless I spotted them in a bookshop or got a launch invite.
Even now it is very rare that Poetry Shelf will be included in a list of online sites, newsletters or links devoted to advancing our engagement with New Zealand books. Yet Poetry Shelf keeps poetry fans in touch with what is happening in our diverse book/writing communities, signalling the books that are released, events, opportunities. I am building up an archive of recordings, interviews, commentaries and reviews. What will happen to all this material when I can no longer care for it? It seems so fragile.
One part of me wants to switch off my computer and phone, and tuck up into a novel in the hammock – because some days I am just treading water and making no difference.
As an author I am also part of our community of booksellers and am more than happy to do events in bookshops, yes to help promote my books but also to promote NZ poetry through various initiatives. I want to start a Bookseller Spot on both my blogs where booksellers recommend a NZ book they have loved or any poetry book they have loved. Or record a poem from a NZ book they have loved. Please get in touch: email@example.com
I want to build and nurture a community of poets writing for children and make it easier for readers to find children’s poetry books. Is this possible? Do we want our children’s lives to be enriched by New Zealand poetry? It is the hardest thing – to get children’s poetry published, reviewed and in prominent places in bookshops. Can we show that poetry – the liberating place of word play – is the most glorious tool for any child. The reluctant writer can juggle words in the air, the sophisticated writer can advance their skills, take up challenges, explore their engagement in a challenging world. Poetry makes a child feel warm inside and itch to read and write.
I want to build bridges and nourish sightlines between our distinctive, diverse and wide roaming poetry communities. Is this possible? Is it vital? Can we draw together in attentiveness across cities, regions, cultures, generations, styles, preoccupations, politics, poetics, voices? For example, I see Louise Wallace (The Starling) and Emma Neale (Landfall) trying to do this in diverse ways. I see Anne O’Brien working hard to do this with her team at AWF. And Claire Maby through Verb Wellington.
And there is nothing wrong with nourishing your own poetry family, your go-to community that supports and listens to and reads what you do. As VUP do with their breathtaking stable of poets, their elders and emerging voices. As do the grassroot presses, such as Seraph, Cold Hub and Compound Press. The small journals such Mimicry and Min-a-ret.
I turned up at the conference after three hours sleep (max!), a poached egg and a short black and had the loveliest conversation with Gem. We talked about poetry, Wild Honey and building communities. I felt invigorated to be in the same room as people who work so hard, imaginatively, passionately, inventively – to sell our books. These are booksellers but they are also most importantly readers.
We wrote a poem to break the ice – and now I have broken the ice I want to keep making poetry visible and making poetry connections. How do I do it? How do we do it?
If I were rich and bounding with energy I would visit every bookshop that invited me and get children and adults hooked on the joy and curiosities of poetry.
I would start up a children’s poetry press.
But I am not rich and I am not bounding with energy at the moment so I will keep thinking on my feet and inventing ways for my blogs to make connections, start conversations, and celebrate the way our book community is comprised of many communities. And keep telling myself that I am not alone. Poetry Shelf has done that!
PS At Mary Kisler‘s conference session dedicated to her fabulous book, Finding Frances Hodgkins, Nicola Legat and Sam Elworthy talked about the new initiative, Coalition for Books. Various organisations are coming together under the one umbrella to work for the collective good of authors, publishers, booksellers and festivals. And of course readers.
PPS After such an intense and wonderful month I am now back to sleeping. Thankfully. Wild Honey‘s arrival in the world had shocked me into a constant state of awakeness.
We both know a language is waiting inside my tongue.
Please put down the adze, the skillsaw, the file:
Speak gently to me so I can recognise what’s there.
Alice Te Punga Somerville from ‘Rākau’
Kei te mōhio tāua, he reo kei tōku arero.
Waiho ki raro te toki, te kani, te whaiuru:
Kōrerotia whakamāriretia kia kite ai au he aha rā kei reira.
Translation from ‘Rākau’ by Te Ataahia Hurihanganui
Poet and novelist Fiona Farrell selected poems from 2018 that held her attention in diverse ways – from books, journals and online sources. She questioned ‘best’ (a vague term), ‘New Zealand’ (poets needed to have been born here or lived here for some time) and ‘poem’ (she went to the Greek and cited a poem as ‘something made’). Poetry offered her numerous reading pleasures:
Those hundreds of poems, gathered over a single year, formed a massive anthology, and if that means ‘ an arrangement of flowers’ – as it does by definition – then New Zealand poetry often reminds me of a garden I saw once, inland from Te Horo. Its flowers were a host of golden margarine containers and tin cans tacked to sticks. It was beautiful, this New Zealand version of common or garden. It was startling and provocative. What is beauty, after all? What is form and order? Why do we choose this and not that? Why does beauty exist in distortion? Why do we find it beautiful when a person stands on one calloused toe rather than with both feet firmly on the ground? Or when an apple is reduced to a crimson cube? Or when a sequence of words is forced from the patter of everyday speech? I’ve thought about that garden while plucking the blooms of 2018.
The refreshed site looks good; you can hear some poets read and you can read notes from some poets on their selected poems (love these entries into poems). We get a new anthology – a harvest of poems that spark and simmer and soothe in their close proximity.
Tusiata Avia’s ‘Advice to Critics’ is like a backbone of the poet and it makes me sit up and listen to the sharp edges, the witty corners. There is the rhythmic hit of Hera Lindsay Bird’s love poem, there is the measured and evocative fluency of Nikki-Lee Birdsey’s ‘Mutuwhenua’, and the equally measured and evocative fluency of Anna Jackson’s ‘Late Swim’. Mary McCallum’s ‘Sycamore tree’, with its delicious syncopation and resonant gaps, first held my attention in her XYZ of Happiness. Bill Manhire’s ‘extended joke’ takes a bite at social media and I laughed out loud. Chris Tse’s poem reminds me of one of my favourite reads of 2018, HE’S SO MASC (and he has the best poet photo ever!)/. There is the inventive lyricism of Sophie van Waardenberg and the aural electrics of essa may ranapiri.
Fiona steps aside from notions of community, and questions of representation but these remain important to me. Part of the impetus of my blog is to nurture our poetry communities by showcasing and fostering connections, overlaps, underlays, experiences, events, ideas, feelings, heart. I am acutely aware that certain communities have not achieved the same representation as others, so I still check anthologies to muse upon the range of voices visible. Yep community is a slippery concept, heck I am consistently asking myself where I belong for all kinds of reasons, but as a white woman I most definitely afforded privilege, access and visibility even when I feel like an outsider. I have sat on the edge of the bed this morning stuck on the word ‘community’. Over the four years of writing and producing Wild Honey it was a key word, for all kinds of reasons, and it kept me going.
I love Fiona’s selection – the poems form an invigorating and uplifting day trip that offers breathtaking moments, surprising twists and turns, unfamiliar voices, old favourites and a welcome reconnection with some of my favourite reads of 2018 (I am thinking of Sam Duckor-Jones’s People from the Pit Stand Up for example). An anthology-garden that is well worth a day trip over Easter! I’ll be going back because I prefer to dawdle when I am travelling so still have sights to take in.
see me see me
by the sycamore tree
each child a propeller
sorry each child has a
propeller & is throwing
it up & the dead seeds
spin & spin & spin & they
shriek my little ones & pick up another