Tag Archives: Victoria University Press

Poetry Shelf celebrates new books: A poem sampler from Ian Wedde’s The Little Ache — a German Notebook

The Little Ache — a German Notebook, Ian Wedde, Victoria University Press, 2021

From The Little Ache—a German notebook

2

Im Hochsummer besuchen die Bienen viele unterschiedliche Blüten

‘In high summer the bees seek many different flowers’

caught my eye on the jar of honey

in the organic shop around the corner

in Boxhagenerstrasse

but outside it was already getting dark

at 4.30 in the afternoon

and the warm bars were filling

with a buzz of patrons

dipping their lips

into fragrant brews

jostling each other in a kind of dance

I didn’t join

(I didn’t know how to

couldn’t ‘find my feet’)

but took home my jar of Buckweizenaroma

buckwheat/bookwise aroma

and sampled some on a slice

of Sonnenblumenbrot.

6

Von allem Leid, das diesen Bau erfüllt,

Ist unter Mauerwerk und Eisengittern

Ein hauchlebendig, ein geheimes Zittern.

‘From all the suffering that fills this building

there is under masonry and iron bars

a breath of life a secret tremor.’

In the Moabit Prison memorial

where Albrecht Haushofer’s words

incised in the back wall

already wear the weary patinas of time and weather

or more probably the perfunctory smears

of graffiti cleansing

I’m assailed by a nipping dog

whose owners apologise in terms I don’t quite understand

though the dog does

and retreats ahead of the half-hearted kick

I lack the words to say isn’t called for.

The horizon’s filled with gaunt cranes

resting from the work of tearing down or building up

the forgettable materiality of history

an exercise one might say

in removing that which was draughty

and replacing it with that which can be sealed.

Or as it may be

tearing down the sealed panopticon

but making space to train dogs in.

21

Oberbaumbrücke

is one of those contrapuntal German nouns

that should be simple but isn’t

unless you think

‘upper-tree-bridge’ is simple.

The long trailing tresses of the willows

have turned pale green

and are thrashing in the wind

on the Kreutzberg side

of die Oberbaumbrücke

over the storm-churned Spree.

They are the uneasy ghosts of spring.

Gritty gusts

blow rubbish along the embankment.

In a crappy nook

a graffitied child clenches a raised fist.

Yesterday at the Leipzig Book Fair

I listened to a fierce debate

about the situation in Ukraine

and later visited the Nikolaikirche

where Johann Sebastian Bach had played the organ.

One situation was loud with discord

the other’s efflatus a ghostly counterpoint.

On the train back to Berlin

I received a text from Donna

who’d been rocking our granddaughter Cara to sleep.

My bag from the Book Fair

had a paradoxical misquote from Ezra Pound on it:

‘Literatur ist Neues,

                                       das neu bleibt.’

The train was speeding at 200 kilometres an hour

towards the place I’m calling home

because it’s haunted by ancestors who left slowly

but surely

thereby established the first term

of my contrapuntal neologism:

Endeanfang.

26

The vanity of art

(Milan Kundera) –

In spring

I return to the Moabit Prison Memorial

Haushofer’s words are still there

writ large on the back wall

they seem a little faded

but that could be the effect

of lucid sunshine

which elongates the speeding shadows

of dogs chasing Frisbees

and picks out

the filigreed patterns of trees

beginning to be crowned

with pale baldachins of leaves.

The girl panhandling on the footpath

at Warschauer Strasse station

has scrawled an unambiguous request

on the cardboard placard

her dog’s sleeping head

seems to be dreaming:

‘cash for beer and weed

and food for the dog’.

What the ghosts of Moabit are saying

I find harder to understand.

The memorial park’s stark absences

move me

and the minimal architectural features

seem respectful and not vaunting.

But the silence here

which the happy dogs

vociferous nesting birds

industriously rebuilding cranes

and agitated railway station

do not fill

that silence

crowds into a place in the mind

that scepticism can’t reach

where ghosts gather obliviously

without caring if I sense them

or if any of this exists.

27

Patriotismus, Nationalismus, Kosmopolitismus, Dekadenz

are the words repeated over and over

by the artist Hanne Darboven

whose great work in the Hamburger Bahnhof

museum of contemporary art

like the nearby Moabit Prison Memorial

reduces what she knew

to the minimal utterances

the obsessive reductions

the repetitions

that anticipate the ghosts of themselves

in the silence of the archive.

Ian Wedde

Ian Wedde was born in 1946. He has published sixteen collections of poetry, most recently Selected Poems (2017). He was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate in 2011 and shared the New Zealand Book Award for poetry in 1978. The Little Ache — a German Notebook was begun while he had the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency 2013/2014 and often notes research done during that time, especially into his German great-grandmother Maria Josephine Catharina née Reepen who became the ghost that haunts the story of the character Josephina in Wedde’s novel The Reed Warbler.

Victoria University page

Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Eleven poems about breakfast

Breakfast is a lifelong ritual for me: the fruit, the cereal, the toast, the slowly-brewed tea, the short black. It is the reading, it is the silence, it is the companionship. It is finding the best breakfast when you are away at festivals or on tour, on holiday. This photograph was taken last year at Little Poms in Christchurch when I was at WORD. One of my favourite breakfast destinations. Breakfast is my gateway into the day ahead, it is food but it is more than food. It is the ideas simmering, the map unfolding, the poem making itself felt.

The poems I have selected are not so much about breakfast but have a breakfast presence that leads in multiple directions. Once again I am grateful to publishers and poets who are supporting my season of themes.

Unspoken, at breakfast

I dreamed last night that you were not you

but much younger, as young as our daughter

tuning out your instructions, her eyes not

looking at a thing around her, a fragrance

surrounding her probably from her

freshly washed hair, though

I like to think it is her dreams

still surrounding her

from her sleep. In my sleep last night

I dreamed you were much younger,

and I was younger too and had all the power –

I could say anything but needed to say

nothing, and you, lovely like our daughter,

worried you might be talking too much

about yourself. I stopped you

in my arms, pressed my face

up close to yours, whispered into

your ear, your curls

around my mouth, that you were

my favourite topic. That

was my dream, and that is still

my dream, that you were my favourite topic –

but in my dream you were

much younger, and you were not you.

Anna Jackson

from Pasture and Flock: New & Selected Poems, Auckland University Press, 2018

By Sunday

You refused the grapefruit

I carefully prepared

Serrated knife is best

less tearing, less waste

To sever the flesh from the sinew

the chambers where God grew this fruit

the home of the sun, that is

A delicate shimmer of sugar

and perfect grapefruit sized bowl

and you said, no, God, no

I deflated a little

and was surprised by that

What do we do when we serve?

Offer little things 

as stand-ins for ourselves

All of us here

women standing to attention

knives and love in our hands

Therese Lloyd

From The Facts, Victoria University Press, 2018

How time walks

I woke up and smelled the sun mummy

my son

a pattern of paradise

casting shadows before breakfast

he’s fascinated by mini beasts

how black widows transport time

a red hourglass

under their bellies

how centipedes and worms

curl at prodding fingers

he’s ice fair

almost translucent

sometimes when he sleeps

I lock the windows

to secure him in this world

Serie Barford

from Entangled islands, Anahera Press, 2015

Woman at Breakfast

June 5, 2015

This yellow orange egg
full of goodness and
instructions.

Round end of the knife
against the yolk, the joy
which can only be known

as a kind of relief
for disappointed hopes and poached eggs
go hand in hand.

Clouds puff past the window
it takes a while to realise
they’re home made

our house is powered by steam
like the ferry that waits
by the rain-soaked wharf

I think I see the young Katherine Mansfield
boarding with her grandmother
with her duck-handled umbrella.

I am surprised to find
I am someone who cares
for the bygone days of the harbour.

The very best bread
is mostly holes
networks, archways and chambers

as most of us is empty space
around which our elements move
in their microscopic orbits.

Accepting all the sacrifices of the meal
the unmade feathers and the wild yeast
I think of you. Happy birthday.

Kate Camp

from The Internet of Things, Victoria University Press, 2017

How to live through this

We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep. We will eat a decent breakfast, probably involving eggs and bacon. We will make sure we drink enough water. We will go for a walk, preferably in the sunshine. We will gently inhale lungsful of air. We will try to not gulp in the lungsful of air. We will go to the sea. We will watch the waves. We will phone our mothers. We will phone our fathers. We will phone our friends. We will sit on the couch with our friends. We will hold hands with our friends while sitting on the couch. We will cry on the couch with our friends. We will watch movies without tension – comedies or concert movies – on the couch with our friends while holding hands and crying. We will think about running away and hiding. We will think about fighting, both metaphorically and actually. We will consider bricks. We will buy a sturdy padlock. We will lock the gate with the sturdy padlock, even though the gate isn’t really high enough. We will lock our doors. We will screen our calls. We will unlist our phone numbers. We will wait. We will make appointments with our doctors. We will make sure to eat our vegetables. We will read comforting books before bedtime. We will make sure our sheets are clean. We will make sure our room is aired. We will make plans. We will talk around it and talk through it and talk it out. We will try to be grateful. We will be grateful. We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep.

Helen Rickerby

from How to Live, Auckland University Press, 2019

Morning song

Your high bed held you like royalty.

I reached up and stroked your hair, you looked at me blearily,

forgetting for a moment to be angry.

By breakfast you’d remembered how we were all cruel

and the starry jacket I brought you was wrong.

Every room is painted the spectacular colour of your yelling.

I try and think of you as a puzzle

whose fat wooden pieces are every morning changed

and you must build again the irreproachable sun,

the sky, the glittering route of your day. How tired you are

and magnanimous. You tell me yes

you’d like new curtains because the old ones make you feel glim.

And those people can’t have been joking, because they seemed very solemn.

And what if I forget to sign you up for bike club.

The ways you’d break. The dizzy worlds wheeling on without you.

Maria McMillan

from The Ski Flier, Victoria University Press, 2017

14 August 2016

The day begins
early, fast broken
with paracetamol
ibuprofen, oxycodone,
a jug of iced water
too heavy to lift.
I want the toast and tea
a friend was given, but
it doesn’t come, so resort
to Apricot Delights
intended to sustain me
during yesterday’s labour.
Naked with a wad of something
wet between my legs, a token
gown draped across my stomach
and our son on my chest,
I admire him foraging
for sustenance and share
his brilliant hunger.
Kicking strong frog legs,
snuffling, maw wide and blunt,
nose swiping from side
to side, he senses the right
place to anchor himself and drives
forward with all the power
a minutes-old neck can possess,
as if the nipple and aureole were prey
about to escape, he catches his first
meal; the trap of his mouth closes,
sucks and we are both sated.

Amy Brown  

from Neon Daze, Victoria University Press, 2019

break/fast and mend/slowly

                                                                                                                                     

                                                                                                                               

Tate Fountain

from Starling 11


Biologist abandoned

I lay in our bed all morning             

next to the half-glass of juice you brought me 

to sweeten your leaving

ochre sediments settled in the liquid

a thin dusty film formed on the meniscus

but eventually I drank it                 

siphoning pulp through my teeth 

like a baleen whale sifting krill from brine

for months after your departure I refused to look 

at the moon

where it loomed in the sky outside              

just some huge rude dinner plate you left unwashed

now ascendant                   

brilliant with bioluminescent mould

how dare you rhapsodize my loneliness into orbit

I laughed                 

enraged                       

to the thought of us   

halfway across the planet staring up

at some self-same moon & pining for each other

but now I long for a fixed point between us

because from here       

even the moon is different     

a broken bowl     

unlatched from its usual arc & butchered                

by grievous rainbows        

celestial ceramic irreparably splintered              

as though thrown there

and all you have left me with is          

this gift of white phosphorous

dissolving the body I knew you in    

beyond apology

to lunar dust     

Rebecca Hawkes

in New Poets 5, Auckland University Press, 2019, picked by Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor

everything changing

I never meant to want you.

But somewhere

between

the laughter and the toast

the talking and the muffins

somewhere in our Tuesday mornings

together

I started falling for you.

Now I can’t go back

and I’m not sure if I want to.

Paula Harris

from woman, phenomenally

Breakfast in Shanghai

for a morning of coldest smog

A cup of black pǔ’ěr tea in my bedroom & two bāozi from the

lady at the bāozi shop who has red cheeks. I take off my gloves,

unpeel the square of thin paper from the bun’s round bottom.

I burn my fingers in the steam and breathe in.

 

for the morning after a downpour

Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly

opening under swirls of soy sauce. Each mouthful of doufu

huā, literally tofu flower, slips down in one swallow. The

texture reminds me of last night’s rain: how it came down

fast and washed the city clean.

 

for homesickness

On the table, matching tiny blue ceramic pots of chilli oil,

vinegar and soy sauce. In front of me, the only thing that

warms: a plate of shuǐjiǎo filled with ginger, pork and cabbage.

I dip once in vinegar, twice in soy sauce and eat while the

woman rolls pieces of dough into small white moons that fit

inside her palm.

 

for a pink morning in late spring

I pierce skin with my knife and pull, splitting the fruit open.

I am addicted to the soft ripping sound of pink pomelo flesh

pulling away from its skin. I sit by the window and suck on the

rinds, then I cut into a fresh zongzi with scissors, opening the

lotus leaves to get at the sticky rice inside. Bright skins and leaves

sucked clean, my hands smelling tea-sweet. Something inside

me uncurling. A hunger that won’t go away.

NIna Mingya Powles

from Magnolia 木蘭, Seraph Press, 20020

Serie Barford was born in Aotearoa to a German-Samoan mother and a Palagi father. She was the recipient of a 2018 Pasifika Residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre. Serie  promoted her collections Tapa Talk and Entangled Islands at the 2019 International Arsenal Book Festival in Kiev.  She collaborated with filmmaker Anna Marbrook to produce a short film, Te Ara Kanohi, for Going West 2021. Her latest poetry collection, Sleeping With Stones, will be launched during Matariki 2021.

Amy Brown is a writer and teacher from Hawkes Bay. She has taught Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne (where she gained her PhD), and Literature and Philosophy at the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School. She has also published a series of four children’s novels, and three poetry collections. Her latest book, Neon Daze, a verse journal of early motherhood, was included in The Saturday Paper‘s Best Books of 2019. She is currently taking leave from teaching to write a novel.

Kate Camp’s most recent book is How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems published by VUP in New Zealand, and House of Anansi Press in Canada.

Tate Fountain is a writer, performer, and academic based in Tāmaki Makaurau. She has recently been published in StuffStarling, and the Agenda, and her short fiction was highly commended in the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition (2020).

Paula Harris lives in Palmerston North, where she writes and sleeps in a lot, because that’s what depression makes you do. She won the 2018 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize and the 2017 Lilian Ida Smith Award. Her writing has been published in various journals, including The Sun, Hobart, Passages North, New Ohio Review and Aotearotica. She is extremely fond of dark chocolate, shoes and hoarding fabric. website: http://www.paulaharris.co.nz | Twitter: @paulaoffkilter | Instagram: @paulaharris_poet | Facebook: @paulaharrispoet

Rebecca Hawkes works, writes, and walks around in Wellington. This poem features some breakfast but mostly her wife (the moon), and was inspired by Alex Garland’s film adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation.  You can find it, among others, in her chapbook-length collection Softcore coldsores in AUP New Poets 5. Rebecca is a co-editor for Sweet Mammalian  and a forthcoming collection of poetry on climate change, prances about with the Show Ponies, and otherwise maintains a vanity shrine at rebeccahawkesart.com

Anna Jackson lectures at Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University of Wellington, lives in Island Bay, edits AUP New Poets and has published seven collections of poetry, most recently Pasture and Flock: New and Selected Poems (AUP 2018).

Therese Lloyd is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Other Animals (VUP, 2013) and The Facts (VUP, 2018). In 2017 she completed a doctorate at Victoria University focusing on ekphrasis – poetry about or inspired by visual art. In 2018 she was the University of Waikato Writer in Residence and more recently she has been working (slowly) on an anthology of ekphrastic poetry in Aotearoa New Zealand, with funding by CNZ.

Maria McMillan is a poet who lives on the Kāpit Coast, originally from Ōtautahi, with mostly Scottish and English ancestors who settled in and around Ōtepoti and Murihiku. Her books are The Rope Walk (Seraph Press), Tree Space and The Ski Flier (both VUP) ‘Morning songtakes its title from Plath.

Nina Mingya Powles is a poet and zinemaker from Wellington, currently living in London. She is the author of Magnolia 木蘭, a finalist in the Ockham Book Awards, a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, and several poetry chapbooks and zines. Her debut essay collection, Small Bodies of Water, will be published in September 2021.  

Helen Rickerby lives in a cliff-top tower in Aro Valley. She’s the author of four collections of poetry, most recently How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019), which won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the 2020 Ockham Book Awards. Since 2004 she has single-handedly run boutique publishing company Seraph Press, which mostly publishes poetry.

Poetry Shelf interviews James Brown

The plain words—the best ones—

you couldn’t give them away.

 

from ‘No Trick Pony’

What a delight to see Selected Poems from James Brown arrive in 2020 (Victoria University Press). Like a number of poetry books out in the first year of COVID, I am not sure it got the attention it deserved (see below for some reviews and poem links). James’s debut collection, the terrific Go Round Power Please (1995), won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award for Poetry, and like so many recipients of this award, he has published a number of further collections and has gathered a significant fan club. Me included. Pick up a James Brown collection and expect to laugh out loud and feel a heart twinge in the same glorious reading breath. He has edited Sport (1993 – 2000), an issue of Best New Zealand Poems (2008) and The Nature of things: Poems from the New Zealand Landscape (Craig Potton, 2005). He teaches creative writing at the International institute of Modern Letters.

The interview

Paula: Reading your Selected Poems has been like catching up with old friends. I have loved moving through samples from your terrific debut collection Go Round Power Please (1995) through Lemon (1999), Favourite Monsters (2002), The Year of the Bicycle (2006), Warm Auditorium (2012) to the most recent Floods Another Chamber (2017). Plus the nonfiction booklet Instructions for Poetry Readings (2005). I kept wanting to tap someone on the shoulder and say, hey listen to this!

What were the delights and challenges in making the book?

James: It was mostly a challenge. I was hellish busy at the time and it was difficult to immerse myself in the process, which probably wouldn’t have made that much difference to the end result, but would’ve been more fun for me. Nothing like a good wallow in your own missteps. There were a few delights. ‘University Open Day’. And, much to my surprise, I was pleased with Warm Auditorium and Floods Another Chamber, which I’d kind of turned on. I was disappointed by ‘The Language of the Future’, which is a flagship poem in Lemon.

People kept saying Vet was the best.

It had the cow with the glass panel.

Actually, the panel wasn’t that interesting,

sort of dark and red. The cow

was eating hay in a small concrete room.

Mostly it just ate. but now and then

it would look sadly round at everyone,

and that’s when I got to thinking

about Philosophy.

The department wasn’t easy to find.

It turned out to be a single office

down a badly lit corridor.

A faded note on the door said

‘Back in 10’. And so

my education began.

from ‘University Open Day’

The process confirmed for me that what I enjoy most about poetry is writing it. And I’m happy for that process to take forever. I even updated a stanza about the Palmerston North Panthers stockcar team in ‘I Come from Palmerston North’. My past self would’ve written poems and sent them to literary outlets and they wouldn’t have become quite real until they were published. My present self is content with the writing.

Paula: I feel the same way. Patricia Grace said a similar thing at AWF this year. It is the writing that matters. In your first collection you were a whizz at similes. I liken them to picnic clearings. I just wanted to let them reverberate visually, semantically, surprisingly. And then they become less and less of a feature in your writing. Do you think your poetry has changed over the decades?

Now the light breaks

across his shoulders like

pieces of some great glass elevator

he may have been waiting for

for years.

from ‘Creation’

James: It surprises me to hear that because I’ve never thought of myself as a simile poet – in fact, quite the opposite. So much so that when I do drop one in I feel all pleased and writerly, like wow, a simile, I’m a proper writer. I’m sometimes a bit suspicious of similes because you can link almost anything to an abstraction. The poem ‘Their Feelings’ you published plays on that: feelings can be like anything. I once wrote a long poem called ‘Small Obligations’ (Sport 9) that was an endless list of similes which all joined to each other. It’s a catastrophic failure. Hera could probably make the idea work.

What was the question? Has my poetry changed? Some earlier poems were obsessed with notions of representation – postmodern stuff I’d studied at uni. Compiling the Selected, I was shocked to see how often self-referential moments appear in my poems. Power relations – how power doesn’t always flow in clichéd, expected directions – were another early interest. I’m still fascinated by power, but less so about representation.

I’ve always loved narrative and I think I’ve got better at it. A lot of my poems are little stories. Stuff happens.

Humour is also an important part of my poetry. There are so many things jokes can teach writers. I worry my poetry has become less funny. Maybe I’ve become sadder.

But my poems don’t always reflect my feelings or attitudes. People always assume poems are autobiographical, but mine are a mixture of my life, other people’s lives, and pure invention. My relationship poems often involve fictional characters, but try convincing people of that. More of my later poems are autobiographical – and I worry they’re the worse for it.

Paula: I find humour is a constant. So many times I laugh out loud. As Bill Manhire says, you are adept at being funny and serious in the one poem (take ‘Willie’s First English Book’ for instance). So many examples – loved ‘Loneliness’ in which the speaker spots Elvis walking across the quad; ‘Identifying New Zealand Birdsong’ with not a bird to be heard; or the wicked lesson with wine gums in ‘Capitalism Explained’. And I laughed out loud at the small poem ‘Flying Fuck’.


James:
Thank you, it’s nice you see the humour as a constant. I worry it’s diminished. I’ve sometimes purposely structured poems as jokes (eg, ‘Maintenance’). ‘Willie’s First English Book’ is actually a found poem, and I’ve transcribed the 100 Mahi from two of William Colenso’s books, and think they’d make a great little book of found prose poems. ‘Flying Fuck’ struck a chord with people. One good thing about writing different styles of poems, which I do, is that some throwaway experiment or off-quilter gag might become someone’s favourite poem!

Paula: I love Emma Barnes’s recent debut I Am in Bed with You that is funny, serious and surreal in equal measures. And Erik Kennedy. Any New Zealand poets who make you laugh?

James: Ha – I took a simile of Erik Kennedy’s and built a poem called Liking Similes around it. At first, I found his simile ‘Here, the cicadas sing like Christian women’s choirs / in a disused cotton mill’ slightly ridiculous, so I decided to unpack it, to try to make it work, and by the time I got to the end of the poem, it did! Now I can’t hear cicadas without thinking of Christian women’s choirs in a disused cotton mill. Very annoying.

I can reel off some overseas poets who’ve make me laugh recently: Louis Jenkins (Where Your House is Now), Miles Burrows (Waiting for the Nightingale), Kimmy Walters (Killers), and Joe Dunthorne (O Positive).


Ashleigh Young’s poems are very funny! Bill Manhire’s latest book Wow. Hinemoana Baker’s funkhaus juggles humour and seriousness without dropping either. That’s a sign of a good, funny poem: if I read it and think it’s hilarious, then I read it again another time and think it’s actually really sad or serious. Nick Ascroft. Tayi Tibble. Sam Duckor-Jones. Am eagerly awaiting Rangikura and Party Legend (love the title poem!) to arrive in my letterbox.

The sun was clouded

—but it wasn’t gonna rain.

The sky was the colour of water

far off.

from ‘Statement After the Fact’

Paula: I like the continuing presence of rain and birdsong – little anchors no matter what else the poem is doing. Any motifs that persist?

James: Rain is probably ubiquitous in poetry. I like weather generally. As I am a carless person, I have to deal with it directly. Cars maybe – because I’m not a fan of them. Water is probably a big recurring element. Light, for sure. But these are hardly exceptional to me. I’m not that conscious of my motifs. Each poem has its own world that requires its own details. As I become an older poet, ahem, I’ve become aware of maybe writing a poem similar to one I’ve already written, which is maybe why I like to take on different characters and forms.

The day I stopped writing poetry

I felt strangely serene.

Back when I started, I had no idea

what I was trying to do: get something out, perhaps,

and I suppose ‘art’ had something

to do with it. There’s a tempting simplicity

about poetry; you don’t necessarily need

the room, the desk, the glowing typewriter

—a scrap of paper and pencil will suffice.

Some of my tidier lines often came to me

on the bus or while I was just lumping along;

they’d be dancing or singing away in my head

while I grinned helplessly at the passing world

until I could arrange to meet them somewhere.

from ‘The Day I Stopped Writing Poetry’

Paula: I also like the way the making of poetry is not kept hidden. I just love ‘The Day I stopped Writing Poetry’. I got curious. What do poems need? Any rules? Anything?

James: Hmmm. Poems have no rules, and yet they set up their own rules, usually really quickly – as in the first few lines. Things like tone, layout, punctuation. It’s quite hard for a poem to deviate too far from its initial ‘rules’, and if it does, it either feels wrong or abrupt shifts in register become one of its rules.

What do poems need? Can I take that back to the source and answer what do poets need? An ear for the intricate registers of language. The ability to read and be moved by poetry. If you don’t like reading poetry, how can you write it? So writing poetry is as much about being able to hear as it is about making yourself heard. Some poets perhaps focus too much on the latter …

Paula: Sometimes you question whether a particular poem is actually a poem. I so know that feeling even though I am trying not to follow in a long line of self-doubting women. Is it a playful choice suggesting poetry can be anything or perhaps a signpost to doubt?

James: The Guardian once posed this question to readers:



Can anyone

tell me if this

is a poem

or not?


My answer is, yes (it has line-breaks), but it’s not a particularly good one. The line between poetry and prose is blurred, and some of my efforts certainly lean more toward prose. It’s not possible to say whether something is or isn’t a poem. Sometimes I read prose poems and think they’re actually prose, whereas sometimes I read prose (eg, Willie’s First English Book) and hear poetry. Lots of odd books get called poetry simply because publishers are unsure how to categorise them. Kenneth Goldsmith’s, for example. Finally, there’s just good writing and bad writing, by which I mean writing you like and writing you don’t like and the vast continuum between those poles.

‘Son,’ he kept saying, ‘son’. Then he turned to me to see

how I was doing. I was concentrating on the fogged up world

out the fogged up window, but his wet, hopeless face

somehow found a way through and got deep inside me, and,

try as I might, I have never been able to shake it out

my whole life long.

from ‘The End of the Runway’

Paula: I was really affected by the poems that get personal but are all quite different. Take ‘The Bicycle’ for example, a poem that highlights a beloved childhood gift. Am I imagining this but did you once compare writing a poem to riding a bicycle? I love the poignant scene of parents tending to a wet toddler in ‘Feeding the Ducks’. Oh and the glorious comic / raw-edged thread in ‘Family Planning’. And more than anything, the heart ripping ‘The End of the Runway’. OMG this poem tore. I have no idea what the personal – fiction mix is but it is a little beauty.

Do you have no-go zones when it comes to personal subject matter? Confession?

James: I have compared riding up a hill to writing poetry – the link being suffering. There are lots of things I wouldn’t write about. I feel it’s unfair to write about friends and family in ways that might hurt them. Well, I might write a poem, but I wouldn’t publish it. I’ve certainly got poems I think are good that I’ll never publish.  

As said, my poetry is less autobiographical than people think. ‘The Bicycle’, for example, is based on experience, but isn’t entirely true. I did not love my bicycle as a kid, but I had one I really liked as an adult. The feelings in ‘The End of the Runway’ are genuine, but many of the details I use to generate them are imagined.

My new book that VUP are publishing next year is anchored around three long, confessional poems. They were hard for me to write. I’d tried to write about one incident on and off for years. I’m very reliant on VUP as to whether they’re successful as poems because for me writing them was really a kind of therapy.

Paula: Anne French likens you to a bricoleur and I can see why. Under your guidance a poem can hold many things. I wonder how it could possibly work and then the poem becomes an effervescent tablet on the tongue. Are you still drawn to this?

James: Do you mean am I still drawn to bricolage? Well, I think the English language is a bricolage. Sometimes I set out to hijack certain registers – like the official names of Barbie dolls in ‘Ken, Barbie, and Me’. ‘Alt. Country’ mimics the ‘straight talkin’ voice of Americana music. Perhaps my poems are bricolages because my own voice is an assemblage of different language registers – song lyrics, advertising speak, clichés, and very occasionally an original turn of phrase.

Paula: Perhaps the funniest piece was the booklet, Instructions for Poetry Readings. I kept thinking of excruciating occasions where a poet hogs everyone else’s time, or has no idea what they are going to read so have to shuffle through pages and books, or spends twenty times longer on an intro than the poem itself. What prompted you to write this booklet?

James: I wrote it at a time when I was going to a lot of poetry readings. They are, as I’m sure you know, strangely ritualistic events. No matter where you are in the country, they follow similar formats, and the characters you meet are strangely familiar. The haiku writer, the political poet, the lustful poet, the poems about cats. You encounter the same highs and lows, so I thought it was about time someone wrote a booklet outlining how everyone ought to behave. So I created a pseudonym, Dr Ernest M. Bluespire (after the James Tate poem ‘Teaching the Ape to Write Poems’), and Fergus published it as a chapbook. Some people thought the author was Steve Braunias because the publisher we concocted was Braunias University Press. I somehow forgot to put any of this in the Notes in the Selected Poems.

I’m actually a big fan of poetry readings and those who organise them.

Paula: Have you been to memorable poetry readings (in a good way)? I am thinking of Bill Manhire at Going West (sublime!). Tusiata Avia (I just get split into heart atoms). Listening to Emma Neale (the music mesmerising).

James: They start to blur now. Bill Manhire is always worth crossing the road for. I was transfixed by Mary Ruefle’s reading; it was like an incantation. James Fenton was great. Robert Hass. Dinah Hawken brings a quiet power to her readings. Tusiata Avia is a great performer of her poems. I’m not usually a fan of performance poetry. The poetry needs to stand on its own.

Paula: Oh envious of hearing Mary. This feels like an impossible question but any poems in the selection that have really hit the mark for you over the decades?

James: A couple could’ve been cut, but I’m happy with the selection. Here’s
Bill Manhire reading ‘University Open Day’.

Paula: Are you a voracious reader? Any poetry books that have affected you in the last few years?

James: I dunno about voracious. Actual Air by David Berman really affected me. It took me a month to read it. Pins by Natalie Morrison. There’s a new poetry book by Tim Grgec called All Tito’s Children that has the most beautiful, effortless writing.

Paula: Ah Pins is sublime. When you first started writing?

James: Do you mean influences when I first started writing? Bill Manhire and Jenny Bornholdt. Charles Simic. Lots of people.

Paula: Any books in other genres you have loved in the past year?

James: A couple of novels I’ve liked: Elif Batuman (The Idiot) and, less so, Jenny Offill (Weather). I reread John Steinbeck’s novella ‘The Pearl’ over the weekend, and thought it a masterful piece of storytelling. The tension! Also The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. And I’m a secret member of the South Wellington Branch of the Magnus Mill’s Fan Club.

Paula: If you were able to curate a poetry reading inviting poets from any time or place who would you line up?

James: Joe Dunthorne, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin, Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, Gertrude Stein. Which is why I’d never be allowed to curate a poetry reading.

Paula:  Oh i would go to that one in a flash! There is more to life than poetry. What else gives you comfort, stimulation, mind and heart boosts?

James: I still get out for a mountain-bike ride once a week, though in the last few years I’ve exchanged mountain-biking at weekends for walking with friends. I listen to a lot of music and odd audio. I read, but not enough. I find reading hard to do around other things because for me it’s immersive. I work from home so spend my days by myself, which I don’t mind, but it does mean I get out of practice speaking.

Paula: Of all writing forms poetry is least likely to put food in the cupboards, pay a mortgage (as you muse on in poems). It is scantly reviewed, is side-staged at festivals, sells less. Yet on the other hand I find our poetry communities are thriving. Exciting. Any thoughts on life as a poet in 2021?

James: The Wellington poetry communities (and I love that there are a number of them) are abuzz with activity. Anyone who writes poetry for fame and/or fortune has taken a wrong turn. So poets need jobs. But poetry is easier to fit around a job than longer forms of writing. Yes, you might work on a poem for years, but they sometimes arrive in your head almost fully formed. Mostly though, poetry is hard work. I suspect life as a poet in 2021 isn’t that different from life as a poet in 1991 (when I was finding my feet), except for rent. New Zealand’s investor-encouraging property market and extortionist rents are probably impacting on reading and writing by forcing people to work longer hours. A lot of New Zealand’s problems go back to land in the end.

Victoria University Press page

Harry Ricketts review on Nine to Noon (Radio NZ National)

Anna Livesey review at ANZL

Jamnes Brown ‘Liking Similes’ at The Spin Off

James Brown ‘Flying Fuck’ at The Spin Off

New James Brown poem on Poetry Shelf ‘Their Feelings’

Poetry Shelf celebrates new books: Seven poets read from Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology

Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology, eds Mikaela Nyman and Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen, Victoria University Press, 2021

Sista, Stanap Strong! gathers new writing from three generations of Vanuata women. This groundbreaking book includes poetry, fiction, essay, memoir, and song. While most of the contributors are ni-Vanuatu living in Vanuatu, some live in New Zealand, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Canada, and some were born overseas and have made a home in Vanuatu. The arrival feels special – the anthology assembled with love, the voices tender, fierce, probing, with vital connections to both Vanuatu and the wider world. In celebration, seven poets read their anthologised poems.

Grateful thanks to editor Mikaela Nyman for assistance in assembling this post.

The Readings

Sharon Wobur reads ‘A strong woman’

Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen reads ‘as you turn 2 weeks old, koko dearest’

Frances C. Koya Vaka‘uta reads ‘Leiniaru, the girl from Pele Island who picks the fruit of the Niaru tree’

Elsie Nalyal Molou reads ‘This body is mine’

Nancy Gaselona Palmer reads ‘And she wept’

Pauline Chang Ryland reads ‘WIFE ‘ Woman in Ferocious Environments’

Ketty Dan-Napwatt reads ‘Givem wata lo olgeta’ and ‘For you today’ 

The Poets

Pauline Chang Ryland Having grown up in an environment where expressive arts was encouraged, I have been writing poetry, but have only recently begun to share my writing. My poetry is often written when I feel words spilling out of my heart, brain and lips and I just have to grab my pen and write. It’s my expression of what life dishes me and those around me, my significant memories and concerns about life and humanity, especially in the Pacific.

Ketty Dan-Napwatt:  I began writing by accident and I still do it sporadically. Because I think a lot and mull over decisions that I have to make or plan something spontaneously, it makes writing my thoughts down easier. I love language and use it creatively for writing, especially when my children urgently request words to create a specific song for public and national events – from a capella to R&B to reggae/dub and spirituals. I write about everything I feel strongly about and more as a relief activity than something to be read by others.

Frances C. Koya Vaka‘uta – Of mixed heritage with links to Sāmoa, Fiji and Vanuatu. Artist and poet, her work explores what it means to be of and belong to the islands, and contemporary issues in the islands under the pseudonym 1angrynative. She’s published in journals and anthologies. Her poetry collections of schizophrenic voices (2002) and Fragments (2018) are available through the University of the South Pacific Book Centre. She is working on two collections.

Elsie Nalyal Molou As a young woman in a very cultural based and patriarchal society, it can be difficult to find a space to voice your views on certain issues, such as violence in relationships and particularly violence against women. Poetry, is not only an escape for me to reflect on these issues, but a way for me to point out to others that these are issues we need to address. And I’m thankful that I’ve been given this space to do just that, and I hope that other young women will find their own outlets to do the same.

Rebecca Tobo Olul-Hossen completed her undergraduate studies at Massey University in Palmerston North. She is co-editor of Sista, Stanap Strong! A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology together with Mikaela Nyman. Rebecca’s and Mikaela’s collaborative poem ‘I Love You?’ was published in Sport 47. In 2020, her collaborative poem with Ketty Dan-Napwatt appeared on Sista website and her poems were included in the poetry collection Voes (published by Alliance Française in Port Vila) and in the South Pacific Communit’s poetry anthology Rising Tides. She is one of the authors and editors of Vanuatu’s first non-fiction book for children, Taf Tumas: Different journeys, one people (2020). Rebecca lives in Port Vila with her husband, sons and daughter. 

Nancy Gaselona Palmer is a poet and writer, she self-published her first book of poems Rock of Strength in 2019. She now is a contributor to Save the Children Solomon Islands project to write short stories for children below ages of 8. The stories are digitised and made available for little children on their mobile phones or tablets.

Sharyn Wobur – Works for World Vision and is originally from Gaua and the Solomon Islands. Poetry is her passion – a strategy to relieve stress where negative thoughts are written into positivity and she gains strength to soar. 

Victoria University Press page

‘Voices of Vanuata’: interview on Standing Room Only, RNZ National

Poetry Shelf review: Ash Davida Jane’s How to Live with Mammals

How to Live with Mammals, Ash Davida Jane, Victoria University Press, 2021

Every poem in Ash Davida Jane’s new collection How to Live with Mammals is an explosion in the mouth; the intricacies and nuances last all day, and beyond. I keep saying to myself well this is my favourite, this is the one I want to dally over and dive in deep. But then I turn the page and encounter another favourite. Therein lies the joy of poetry: the way a poem can you hold you.

I am scared I am going to pin the collection down to a single idiosyncratic reading when the poetry is full of movement and surprise, revelation and comedy. I am thinking the collection faces knowing and not knowing, paying close attention both to self and to the complicated world. There is the way things slip from grasp and the way a poem marks a place – a way of being – in the world. It is rich in multiple notes like I’m holding a refracting prism that keeps hooking me with glint and gleam. Subject matter and motifs repeat like connecting bridges: mammals, food, asparagus, the body, naming, birds, trees.

The poet – the speaking voice – looks back and looks forward, and the poem becomes present participle, a glorious bearer of movement that touches the past and the present, with longing and with forgetting. Perhaps I am saying this is a book of verbs where living feels personal, enriched by imaginings and replay, punctuated by white space, the poet’s breath.

I love considering these poems within the fertility of verbs. Take looking for example. Observing. Seeing what we have lost the ability to see. Being looked at. Not being looked at. Looking back with longing. Paying attention. Looking forward. This is just one verb-al thread that offers glorious sustenance to the collection’s arc. This from a poem that mourns a world affected by climate change:

I pay daily attentions to colour

7am waiting at the bus stop under

a sulphur-red sky

 burnt at the edges where it

sticks to the horizon

fading to a midday dull white sheen

 

the ocean a room of

mirrors reflecting itself

the edges of waves tinged pink

like we’re on another planet

but we’re exactly

where we’ve always been

 

except there’s a PE teacher

pushing us to go faster than we want to

jogging into an apocalyptic future

in polyester shorts

 

from ‘2050’

You could track the naming of things, the vanished names, the recalled names, the way names matter. You could trace the talking thread, self talk, alone talk, intimate talk, talking in a crowded room. You could take the bridge from assumed point of view to the poet’s place to other shoes. The poet steps into another character after her partner jokes that she’s his ‘farm wife / in my long brown skirt / and beige sweater / sleeves rolled up’. She steps into the walking shoes of Dorothy Wordsworth, borrowing lines, overlaying English lake with flittery fantail and a shared moon.

the bees emerging

from their wooden house

mistake me for

a flower and for

a moment I am one

hopelessly lacking in pollen

swaying in the breeze

and taking up space

standing still in the mud

unmaking myself amid

leaves I’ve seen a thousand times

and never wondered the names of

some trees putting out red shoots

query: what trees are they?

 

from ‘walking with Dorothy’

 

The reading rewards of Ash’s poetry are numerous. A single poem might make you laugh, recoil, identity, empathise, leap unexpectedly, gather facts, process feelings. ‘marine snow’ provoked such movement. Crikey I love this poem that moves from underwater swimming to a hatred of swimming, especially when the instructor tells the three year old a crab lives on the bottom of the pool, to the grief of last things to the grief of last things flowing into other things ( ‘the pot of coffee / is in mourning / now / the laundry / drips wet tears’) to the fact it snows underwater. Glorious. Sad. Challenging.

I don’t want to limit this book to narrow pathways and dead ends. I want you to find your own bridges and sidetracks, to leap and dive deep. Expect to be embraced in the scene. Expect heat shimmer steam. Expect the lucid and the poignant. I’m in love with these poems, every single one of them.

Ash Davida Jane’s poetry has appeared in MimicrySweet MammalianStarlingThe Spinoff and elsewhere. Her first book, Every Dark Waning, was published in 2016 by UK indie publisher Platypus Press. She lives in Wellington, where she works as a bookseller.

Pip Adam’s launch speech via Victoria University Press page

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf: Ash reads from the book

Tara Comics launch page

Starling online journal: ‘Love poems when all the flowers are dead’

Poetry Shelf congratulates Tusiata Avia, the Ockham NZ Book Award Poetry winner (ten things she loves, a poem, an interview)

Such heartfelt congratulations to Tusiata Avia, a much loved poet who has and who continues to inspire generations of poets. Yes Pasifika poets, yes young women writing, and yes, most importantly, yes us all. Her award-winning book is magnificent. She places herself in these necessary poems: her ravaged heart, her experience, wounds, scars, thinking, feeling, urge to speak out, sing, perform, no matter the price, holding out history, the coloniser, the colonised, Ihumātao, the Australian bush fires, translating for the gutted woman, the abortioned woman, her mother, her daughter, her lovers, but at times she is disabled with epilepsy, her father a presence, and she places a prayer for her daughter, for the stars, water, lungs, and for the reader, here in these poems, she places a prayer. Extraordinary.

Ten things I love

1. A photograph: The photo is of Sepela – exactly 10 years ago, a week after the big earthquake when we escaped to Hinemoana’s who lived in Kapiti then.

2. A poem by someone else: All they want is my money my pussy my blood by Morgan Parker (and pretty much anything from her book, There are more beautiful things than Beyonce.

3. A song: Back to Life by Soul II Soul

4. A book: Hurricane Season, Fernando Melchor, trans. Sophie Hughes, New Directions, 2020 (my favourite book of 2020)

5. A movie: My Neighbour Totoro

6. A place: South Sinai coast, Egypt

7. A meal: taro (cooked in the umu) and palusamu

8. A poetic motif: Can’t think of one, but I can think of a form I love – the pantoum.

9.  A place to write: Where ever the ‘thing’ is happening (see Five questions below)

10. A poem from my book (Tusiata did a stunning performance of this at the awards PG):

250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand

Hey James,

yeah, you

in the white wig

in that big Endeavour

sailing the blue, blue water

like a big arsehole

FUCK YOU, BITCH.

James,

I heard someone

shoved a knife

right up

into the gap between

your white ribs

at Kealakekua Bay.

I’m gonna go there

make a big Makahiki luau

cook a white pig

feed it to the dogs

and FUCK YOU UP, BITCH.

Hey James,

it’s us.

These days

we’re driving round

in SUVs

looking for ya

or white men like you

who might be thieves

or rapists

or kidnappers

or murderers

yeah, or any of your descendants

or any of your incarnations

cos, you know

ay, bitch?

We’re gonna FUCK YOU UP.

Tonight, James,

it’s me

Lani, Danielle

and a car full of brown girls

we find you

on the corner

of the Justice Precinct.

You’ve got another woman

in a headlock

and I’ve got my father’s

pig-hunting knife

in my fist

and we’re coming to get you

sailing round

in your Resolution

your Friendship

your Discovery

and your fucking Freelove.

Watch your ribs, James

cos, I’m coming with

Kalaniōpu‘u

Kānekapōlei

Kana‘ina

Keawe‘ōpala

Kūka‘ilimoku

who is a god

and Nua‘a

who is king with a knife.

And then

James,

then

we’re gonna

FUCK.

YOU.

UP.

FOR.

GOOD.

BITCH.


Tusiata Avia

Five questions

Is writing a pain or a joy, a mix of both, or something altogether different for you?

A mix, for sure. Often, I don’t feel like writing – unless I have an experience (internal or out in the world) that I feel the need to write about immediately. At times like that, I feel a sense of urgency, sometimes verging on desperation, to stop whatever I’m doing and write. I have pulled the car over on a busy motorway and searched for a piece of paper to scribble it down . I’m not great at the discipline of writing every day.

Name a poet who has particularly influenced your writing or who supports you.

I don’t read her so much these days, but I love Sharon Olds. She helped me to write more openly – to be honest and vulnerable.

Was your shortlisted collection shaped by particular experiences or feelings?

Colonisation, racism, illness, a bit of Covid – all the relaxing stuff.

Did you make any unexpected discoveries as you wrote?

The whole book was unexpected. I was writing another book called Giving Birth To My Father, which took ages. After a while (quite close to my deadline) I realised it wasn’t ready for the outside world. The Savage Coloniser Book had to come together really quickly, if I wanted it published for 2020. I knew I had a few poems that were very ‘2020’ lying about. I wrote to those poems in a short amount of time.

Do you like to talk about your poems or would you rather let them speak for themselves? Is there one poem where an introduction (say at a poetry reading) would fascinate the audience/ reader? Offer different pathways through the poem?

During poetry readings/ performances I used to think the poem should speak for itself but many poems really need an introduction, particularly when people are not experiencing them on the page.

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.

Poetry Shelf review

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s review at ANZL

Poetry Shelf: Tusiata‘s ‘Love in the Time of Primeminiscinda’ (The Savage Coloniser Book)

Tusiata reads ‘Massacre’ (The Savage Coloniser Book)

Leilani Tamu review at KeteBooks

Faith Wilson review at RNZ National

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf celebrates new books: Ash Davida Jane reads from How to Live with Mammals

How to Live with Mammals, Ash Davida Jane, Victoria University Press, 2021

Ash reads ‘water levels’

Ash reads ‘mating in suburbia’

Ash reads ‘transplanting’

Ash reads ‘carrying capacity’

Ash Davida Jane’s poetry has appeared in MimicrySweet MammalianStarlingThe Spinoff and elsewhere. Her second book, How to Live With Mammals, was published by Victoria University Press in April 2021. She lives and works in Wellington.

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf Ash’s poem ‘undergrowth

Poetry Shelf Ash muses on ecopoetics

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Tracey Slaughter launches Devil’s Trumpet

Victoria University Press and Poppies Bookstore
warmly invite you to the launch of

Devil’s Trumpet
by Tracey Slaughter

on Thursday 15 April, 6pm 
at Poppies Bookshop,
Casabella Lane, Barton St,
Kikiroa, Hamilton.

All Welcome.

Poetry Shelf review: Bernadette Hall’s Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004 – 2020

Bernadette Hall, Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004 -2020, Victoria University Press, 2020

Campfires flicker in the night, ice masks the harbour.

I’ve made up my mind at last. I’m going to walk across

to see the others. We can sit down then

and talk about poetry, the way ‘water’ chimes

with ‘daughter’ and is there any news of her yet.

from ‘Wai-te-ta’

2020 was a year rich in New Zealand poetry and I am still dipping into my wee stack for treasures. I have long been a fan of Bernadette Hall’s poetry with its sumptuous sound and visual effects, its wide roving subject matter, and its agile engagement with ideas, experience and feeling, it’s humour.

Interestingly, picking up Fancy Dancing set me on a slightly different response to the poetry, because I stalled on Robyn Webster’s artwork before I read the poems. Robyn’s works are enticing. They appear like a fusion of needlework, embroidery and painting with maybe a whiff of printmaking. I haven’t seen them in real life so am only connecting with them as illustrations in a book and have no idea of the media. I am struck by the allure of threads, branches and tributaries, by a colour palette that shifts between soothing harmonies and piquant contrasts. There is both simplicity and intricacy.

Here I am stalling on the artworks and I see them as shadow maps of the poetry. To think of Bernadette’s poetry as rich in tributaries, branches and threads is rewarding. One thread takes you along Irish roads into experience and ancestors, another into ice and snow and the Antarctic. Gardens and friends, weather and the sea, the mountain and the angels are stitched exquisitely along the lines. There is the close-at-hand and there is the wider world. There is the warmth in harmonies and the edge in contrasts. It was so satisfying to read my way through samples from the collections I am familiar with (The Ponies (2007), The Lustre Jug (2009), Life & Customs (2013) and Maukatere, floating mountain (2016).

The final section is devoted to new poems, including an exquisite sonnet sequence that is akin to brocade it is so rich in effect. Bernadette’s included author bio is revelatory : “And as for the wilful sonnets that explode in the final pages of this book, she wonders where on earth they came from. ‘It was such fun writing them,’ she says, ‘as if I‘d kicked down the stable doors and taken to the hills.’”

If I continue making analogies with the artwork, I see the 25 sonnets as embroidery at its most intricate and dazzling. Classical threads are stitched into a contemporary context, the personal is threaded with the fictional, the imagined with the recalled. Both Phaedra and the poet are shadowy presences, their back narratives bubbling beneath the surface. The poet speaks:

Now it’s time to expand the narrative. So come

with me into a dimly lit corridor in the Mayflower

Student Hostel beside the Mississippi River

in Iowa.  (…)

from ‘v.’

Think of brocade that glints and gleams and offers pocket narratives and pinches of the surreal. Guests make appearances: friends, family, writers, artists, goddesses. You will hear rain and footsteps, but you will also hear the sumptuous audio effects that are a trademark of Bernadette’s writing. Such an ear for the resounding line. I keep wanting to quote lines to you, whole sonnets.

In sonnet xix, the ‘crazy lady, how she strides down Cuba Mall in full combat gear’ declares the area is under control. The poem culminates in the poet/speaker imagining how she would behave kindly if it were a movie: she would approach the woman in combat gear saying, ‘Thank you, / I feel so much safer in this crazy world with you around.’

I am repeatedly drawn to sonnet xxiv, a sonnet dedicated to grandchildren, a sonnet that sways between past and present, between Italian marble and four children harbour swimming, ‘their arms / like triangle roof-lines’. The image is potent, the shiver between past and present fertile, and the ending so very moving:

(…) How long it took to see

the eating, drinking, gulping, feasting of the water

body, the spasmodic sun, the specific shade.

Beautiful children, you are forever and thereafter

swimming me to shore. I could not love you more.

The final sonnet is a form of counting blessings as it gives thanks. It becomes a rich celebratory brocade, luminous and heartfelt, a gift for ear and eye. I will pin this sonnet to my study wall as I continue to give thanks to poetry, to the things near me, to what gives me courage and furnishes each precious day.

Let us give thanks for the cranesbill geranium

and the mouse eared myositis,

for the ranunculus (little frog mouth, little friend),

for the feathered nival zone, for the bug moss

in the tarn, for all that is and all that

has been and all that is to come. It is for us

to keep our courage firm, to nurse our appointed

pain, to await ‘that which springs ablaze of itself’.

from sonnet xxv

Fancy Dancing showcases the work of one of our most treasured poets. The poems will dance in your ear and on your tongue, in your limbs and in your heart. Take a read. Pick a favourite and pin it to the wall. Take heart from this gift of poetry.

Bernadette Hall is Otago born and bred. Following a long and much enjoyed career as a high school teacher in Dunedin and Christchurch, she has for the last eighteen years lived in a renovated bach at Amberley Beach in the Hurunui, North Canterbury, where she has built up a beautiful garden. Fancy Dancing is her eleventh collection of poetry. ‘It’s as close as I’ll ever get to writing an autobiography,’ she says, laughing. And as for the wilful sonnets that explode in the final pages of this book, she wonders where on earth they came from. ‘It was such fun writing them,’ she says, ‘as if I‘d kicked down the stable doors and taken to the hills.’ In 2015 she collaborated with Robyn Webster on Matakaea, Shag Point, an art /text installation exhibited at the Ashburton Art Gallery. In the same year she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for literary achievement in poetry. In 2017 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf sonnet from Fancy Dancing

ANZL review by Lynley Eadmeades

Best NZ Poems, sonnet from Fancy Dancing

Poetry Shelf review: Ruby Solly’s Tōku Pāpā

Tōku Pāpā, Ruby Solly, Victoria University Press, 2021

Over the past year, in all my musings and readings, books have felt so very precious. Books crossing myriad categories, books for adults and books for children. Poetry has been especially precious. Aotearoa is alive with poetry communities; there’s such a richness of voice on the page and in the air (and on the screen). And it is so valued.

Pick up a poetry book, hold the book in your hand and feel its preciousness. I picked up Ruby Solly’s debut collection and it felt like I was holding love. The love imbued in the stitches and seams of its making. The photograph will hold you still and steady and already you know that in this book people will be at its heart. Its core.

Enter a poetry book that catches your heart and every pore of your skin, and you enter a forest with its densities, its shadows and lights, canopies and breaths, re-generations. You will meet oceans and rivers and enter different ebbs and flows, different currents, fluencies. You will reach the sky with its infinite hues, dreamings, navigations, weatherings (storm washed, sunlit, moonlit). You will meet the land with its lifeblood, embraces, loves, whānau, anchors.

This is what happens when I read Ruby Solly’s Tōku Pāpā.

When you first told me

that you gave me the name of our tupuna

so that I would be strong enough

to hold our family inside my ribcage,

I believed you.

The collection is in two connected parts, like the two parts of a heart, ‘awe’ and ‘kura’, two nouns linked by feathers, leading us to the ‘essence of soul’, ‘strength, power, influence’ and the red feathers used as ‘decoration, treasure, valued possession, heirloom, precious possession, sacred, divine law, philosophy, darling, chief’, and the ability to glow.

The untitled poem that begins the collection (quoted in part above), before awe and kura, addresses ‘you’, and in this heart-opening the poet draws deep into the knowledge and love and whānau that shape and nourish her, the wairua, the dark places and the light.

I am reminded of Robert Sullivan’s terrific poem ‘Voice Carried My Family’ (AUP). Voice carries Ruby, and her voice ‘carries’ everyone she thanks in her acknowledgement page. The collection has myriad tributaries, but a key river is finding voice. She is addressing her Pāpā. She is voicing her relationship and that voice is modulated as musician, as poet, as human being. She is listening to the past and the present, she is writing a river, an ocean, the sky, the land. A forest. A whānau.

The words flow like a solo instrument, with the poet as bow and breath.

There is stillness and movement, and there is always heart. You will find yourself in the scene, and the scene will pulsate and be luminous with life:

We sit together in silence,

deep in the mountain’s quiet heart.

Watching our breath melt away

the walls around us.

from ‘He Manawa Maunga’

There is a road trip to the ballet and a machete blade to be readied for work. Custard tarts are eaten as a car fills with smoke. There are swimming lessons. There is underwater and above water. There is finding the current and then finding breath. There is warmth and there is wisdom.

I especially love ‘Eulogy’ and the father wisdom:

As a child

whenever I was angry,

inconsolable,

my father would tell me to write a eulogy

to the person who had caused me pain.

He said that by the end of it

I would see

that even those who cause us pain

are precious to the world.

from ‘Eulogy’

This precious book – that in its making, its stands, rests and journeys from and towards so much – is the reason why I cannot stop reading and sharing thoughts on and writing my own poetry. The book is a gift and like so many other readers I am grateful. Kia ora Ruby. Thank you.

Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Starling and Sport among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā is her first book.

Victoria University Press page

Ruby talks with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon

On Poetry Shelf: Ruby’s poem ‘Pōria

On Poetry Shelf: Ruby’s poem ‘Dedication

Ruby Solly premieres a video for her new album Pōneke and a wānanga with essa may ranapiri

Cover photograph: Taaniko Nordstrom and Vienna Nordstrom, Soldiers Rd Portraits