A Game of Two halves: The Best of Sport 2005 – 2019, ed Fergus Barrowman Victoria University Press, 2021
This book looks back through the fifteen issues of Sport from 2005 to 2019. In 600 pages it presents fiction, poetry, essays and oddities by 100 of our best writers, from leading lights like Bill Manhire, Ashleigh Young and Elizabeth Knox, to emerging glow worms like Tayi Tibble, Ruby Solly and Eamonn Marra. (Blurb)
Reviewing A Game of two Halves is a sad glad day for me. I have loved reading my way through old favourites but I am also sad that this is a farewell. I can remember how excited I was when the first issue of Sport hit the bookstands. It was fresh, exciting, unmissable. I am pretty sure I have every copy stacked on my study shelves. On the blurb, I read that editor Fergus Barrowman’s A Game of two Halves selection is a mix of ‘leading lights and glow worms’, the established and the emerging. Light is such a good analogy because I often find myself using the word ‘incandescent’ to describe writing I love. Writing lights me the reader, the world at large and in miniature, the present, future, past, the miraculous things words can do. Even when the subject matter is dark, shadows and weirdness loom, writing still lifts. Sets me alight. This is what literary journals can do. This is what Sport has done.
All those clothes it turned and churned, the lint that trapped in its door. I once thought many things would make my life happier and now one by one I will let them go.
Rachel Bush from ‘All my feelings would have been of common things’
Confession – I haven’t read the whole volume yet but I can’t wait to do that to share. I am so engaged, I want you to place A Game of Two Halves on your summer reading pile as a go-to source of luminous writing. Last ‘light’ analogy I promise. Reading the poetry (I always start with the poetry) is like tuning into a Spotify playlist where individual tracks resonate and then send you back to the albums. Rachel Bush’s sublime ‘Thought Horses’ sent me back to that collection. Michele Amas’ equally sublime ‘Daughter’ sent me back to After the Dance. Herein lies the first joy of Fergus’s playlist. I am reconnected with poems that have registered as all time favourites. Read Angela Andrews’ ‘White Saris’. Bill Manhire’s ‘The Schoolbus’. Read Ruby Solly, Esther Dischereit, Rebecca Hawkes, Ash Davida Jane, essa may ranapiri, Tayi Tibble, Michael Krüger, Jane Arthur, Chris Tse, Freya Daly Sadgrove, Emma Neale. Read Amy Brown’s ‘Jeff Magnum’. Ashleigh Young. Louise Wallace.
This is the place where the schoolbus turns. The driver backs and snuffles, backs and goes. It is always winter on these roads: high bridges and birds in flight above you all the way. The heart can hardly stay. The heart implodes.
Bill Manhire from ‘The Schoolbus’
Perhaps the biggest gleam is from Tina Makereti’s prose piece, ‘An Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman walk into a Pā’. I am such a fan of her novels, rereading this reminds me of the power and craft of Tina’s writing.
This is the way of it. Before I have memorised her in a way that will last forever, my mother is gone. If someone asks me to recite my first memory, which consists of chickens in a yard and an old farmhouse and an outside toilet, it will contain this absence. For the rest of my childhood, I don’t think it matters.
Tina Makereti from ‘An Englishman, an Irishman and a Welshman walk into a Pā’
In his introduction, Fergus tracks the development of Sport, the almost demises, and the decision to close (with regrets!). He mentions the vibrancy of the issue Tayi Tibble recently edited (Sport 47, not just the cover but also the contents) and ‘whether it made sense to go on reinventing Sport every year?’ I have appreciated the move to showcase Aotearoa writers beyond the traditional Pākehā set in recent years. To always draw upon the inspired writing of new generations. Fergus closes off his introduction by mentioning a couple of other anthologies VUP / THWUP are doing and then offers this: ‘And after that? You tell us? Send us your ideas. Send us your work.’ Exciting prospect.
I raise my glass to toast what has been an important venue for new and established voices. I will miss Sport. I will really miss Sport. Thank you Fergus and Victoria University Press / Te Herenga Waka University Press for dedicating time and love to a vital space for readers and writers. I look forward to what comes next.
It has been a long time since I last spoke to you. When we were children, our fathers wanted to be mountains our mothers were the sky. So here I am, the dry hands, steady in fog, waiting by the not-there trees, the holes birds make in the air.
Jenny Bornholdt from ‘It Has Been a Long Time Since I last Spoke to You, So Here I Am’
the air is thick with depression even the flies fly very slowly
Freya Daly Sadgrove from ‘Pool Noodle’
I worry about whakamā and imposter syndrome paralysing our people, making them too afraid or inhibited to really live their best lives or at least the best lives they can under the hellskies of capitalism and party politics. I’m all about people, and I’m all about the best lives.
Tayi Tibble from ‘Diary of a (L)it Girl or, Frankenstein’s Ghost Pig’
Fergus Barrowman has been the Publisher of Victoria University of Wellington Press since 1985, and founded Sport along with Nigel Cox, Elizabeth Knox and Damien Wilkins in 1988. He edited the Picador Book of Contemporary New Zealand Fiction in 1996.
Victoria University Press / Te Herenga Waka University Press page
She’s a Killer, Kirsten McDougall, Victoria University Press, 2021
My late Sunday afternoon plug: Kirsten McDougall’s She’s a Killer is an astonishing book. Daring, wise, jagged, smooth. I finished it this afternoon and felt bereft. Fell asleep and then woke up discombobulated. That where am I? Who am I? What I am doing on this godforsaken planet kind of feeling. Every note in Kirsten’s novel (part eco-thriller but so much more) is pitch perfect. Every turn surprising. Every character sharp and faceted and memorable. Don’t go reading reviews that spend most of the time plot and outcome and ideas summarising. Go in fresh. Go in with senses open. It’s the perfect book to read in the time of Covid when we are experiencing all manner of societal splinters and spikes, challenges and catastrophes, goodness and hope. Elizabeth Knox said the book will make you laugh and weep. Yes. It also made me feel self-awkward and despairing, grief-struck. But more than anything, it made me feel utterly alive, and it’s a long time since a book has made me feel this. Maybe since Elizabeth’s equally tremendous The Absolute Book. Genius!
A kind friend gave me She’s a Killer (thank you!) so I’d like to return the favour and gift a copy to someone else. Nominate someone who would love a copy (yourself included).
Kirsten McDougall’s previous novels are Tess (2017), longlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards, and shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award, and The Invisible Rider (2012). Her stories and nonfiction have appeared in Landfall, Sport and Tell You What: Great New Zealand Non-fiction 2016, and her story ‘Walking Day’ won the 2021 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition. She was the recipient of the 2013 Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary, and a Michael King Writers Centre residency in 2019. She lives in Wellington.
All Tito’s Children, Tim Grgec, Victoria University Press, 2021
i. History has never been an exact science. It is simply an emphasis of fact: figures moving in and out of view with a preoccupied smoothness, the way dates and events go missing like memories treading just above the surface. ii. One cannot be certain of anything except for what one sees with one’s own eyes.
from ‘The Company We Keep’
In the 1970s I had a friend whose parents fled Hungary two decades earlier. I was studying history at secondary school, but standing in a basement with hanging salamis, bottles of moonshine, and the mother who had never become fluent in English, made history more real than any school lesson. I was standing in a recreated Hungarian pocket, and it was far more moving than history lessons on the unification of Italy or the Austria-Hungarian Empire. In my awkward teens I discovered that history is more than facts and figures, warped universalisations, crippling hierarchies and even more crippling erasures. History is the braided story of individuals, of daily lives, as much as it is the story of despots, political boundaries, the visible privileged.
When I lived in London in the 1980s, the African National Congress, Amnesty International, and the Women’s Rights Movements, got me reassessing the word freedom. In 2021 it seems just as important because people are still fleeing oppressive regimes, are still imprisoned for impossible-to-discern crimes, are still fighting for freedom from domestic abuse. And yes, the concept of personal freedom is a minefield because, within the bounds of freedom, there are things we ought not do and there are things we should do.
Tim Grgec’s stunning debut collection All Tito’s Children returned me to the Hungarian basement of my teenage years and to questions of freedom.
I am haunted by this remarkable book, by this poetry that is quiet, thoughtful, essential. The poems shift between the point-of-view of Elizabeta and Stjepan, two siblings from Kotoriba, a small Yugoslavian village. Their country is under the communist leadership of Josip Broz Tito, and his voice is a chilling presence. The siblings play a game of truth and lies (guess which statement is the lie) as the country itself grapples with an unreliable leader. Spot the truth, discern the lies. There is nearby conflict, unrest, farmers hiding crops, there is daily life going on. There is daily life going on. Who is Tito? Who is the person? There is mounting dissatisfaction and the seeds of doubt.
The collection has its genesis in autobiography: Tim’s grandparents fled from Yugoslavia to Aotearoa as refugees in the 1950s. He has read and researched, and he has the family stories passed down. The poetry is strengthened by the marriage of piquant detail and pulsating gap. We don’t know everything. We are drawn to the physical (the mechanical broadcasts, the rows of crops under the heat of the sun). The muted questions and covert gestures of dissidence. How this book haunts. How this book haunts when people are still oppressed, still need to care for families, plant crops, write and speak.
This is what struck: the land is a constant. Contested yes, stolen yes, and where we stand yes; in our imaginations, in our bones and hearts, across generations. Our now endangered skies, sea, terra firma, have been a constant over centuries of change and conflict and exile. I don’t quite know how to articulate this but the word ‘wonder’ keeps arising. Questions and awe. Questions and awe. In this sequence of haunting dislocation that compels some people to leave as refugees, there are exquisite flashes of wonder. Where the power and the beauty of the land, that beloved homeland, transcend everything. Just for a moment, and in that contemplative brilliance, there resides fleeting hope. Tim’s ability to craft a line with such simplicity, such fluency, beams at you, amplifies the effect of wonder as you read. How I love this book. How this is such a perfect book to read in our own uneven times, where everything comes into question, where freedom is a tested concept, where we need to do better caring for the dispossessed. I hold this book to my heart knowing the best way to seduce you is with Tim’s words, not mine.
An old woman washing clothes on the Mura: Why would you question that? she asks. She knows everything about the flat rocks at the river’s edge, the washed sky, at first foggy then red—the sun slipping through its own lining. I watch her every movement, rinsing and wringing, rinsing again. If I look away I won’t have to imagine who will wear them— the same family story— or if she is retrieving the stray handkerchief floating downstream, set free from its basket like a piece of torn cloud.
from ‘Elizabeta’s Tiny Seeds’
Tim Grgec has master’s degrees in English literature and creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington, where he was the 2018 recipient of the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. His work has appeared in Landfall, The Spinoff, NZ Books, Mimicry, Sweet Mammalian, Turbine and Starling. All Tito’s Children is his first book.
All Tito’s Children, Tim Grgec, Victoria University Press, 2021
Tim reads ‘Infectious Divides’:
Tim reads ‘Lost Tendencies’:
Tim Grgec was the 2018 recipient of the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. Having failed to achieve his childhood dream of playing for the Black Caps, he now has delusions of becoming a great writer. His first book, All Tito’s Children, is out now with Victoria University Press.
Party Legend, Sam Duckor-Jones, Victoria University Press, 2021
To Anita: complete with scissors and buttons For Donovan: a lesson To Christopher: humming a little tune For Neil: we tried To Jack: a pasture of hens For my grandfather: the standard question For Amy: empty nutshells To Janet: harder than quartz
Some poetry books offer a sweet flowing current, other books twist and spin with connections, disconnections, changing hues. I love both. I love a fluency of voice, and I love it when voice cracks and reforms afresh. Sam Duckor-Jones’s second collection, Party Legend, is utterly inventive as it redirects the current, swaps over form, upholds fluency, surprises you at each turn of the page.
First love: the sequence of fascinating epigraphs that hold the collection together. I am reminded of a leaf skeleton. Look though the weathered mesh and you enter the realm of existence. This is an epigraph fest: Dorian Corey, Ken Bolton, Charles Darwin, Bernadette Bassenger, Karen Kamensek, Sophie Zawistowski, Dr Ruth-Anne Tibbets.
And then the beating heart of the book, a long sequence, ‘The Embryo Repeats’, a sequence to luxuriate in, a God alphabet of making and breaking and coveting, and a what-the-heck God, and God is everywhere, think anecdotes and silence and chuckles. An alphabet of arrivals. Desire dissatisfaction curiosity.
Switch currents, and the ‘Allemande’ poems transpose Bach’s lettered notes in the same order of his Cello Suites. Well yes. The lexicon is lush and elbowed. Expect fêtes and golden fools and dick. Genius.
Take time out for Sam’s refreshment of the found poem. Has to be the best salt-and-pepper cluster of found poems I have encountered in a long time. There is the ha! moment when you discover the poem is found language. The ha! moment at the revelation of source. The way you go back to the poem and it spins like enriched dough in your head and the poem rises and lifts, and is more than our immunity to the language we encounter daily. It is a trapdoor into reverie. Musing on existence. Little thoughts. Big thoughts. Sam borrows from the dedications and final lines in a book he found in a BnB (poem above), from emails about Talmund with his mother, an overheard conversation in a bookshop, RNZ reportage of the Kaikoura earthquake. And!! a complete list of Israeli prime ministers mashed up with Mary Holmes interviews on RNZ National. Genius, again, genius.
The poetry of Sam Duckor-Jones is a refreshing gust in my head. It’s audacious and funny and real. It’s mind-roaming, and heart-attaching, and blisteringly good.
Sam Duckor-Jones is a sculptor and poet. In 2017 he won the Biggs Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. His first book was People from the Pit Stand Up (VUP, 2018).
Rangikura, Tayi Tibble, Victoria University Press, 2021
Cover: Xoë Hall
‘I love words so much they blind me.’
Tayi Tibble caught my poetry heart with her debut collection – Poūkahangatus – and the hearts of a galaxy of poetry fans. Rangikura is snaring my heart again. Gloriously so.
Why is it so good to read this book? It is stepping into liquid currents of words, river currents of ideas, images, feelings: incandescent, life-affirming, fast flowing. The poem is the water current and the lightness current, and it is the vessel-on-the-water current. I am climbing in, word splashed, and drenched in joy. The poet is deep diving, skimming the shallows, riding the rough, revelling, honouring, exposing.
Feel the vernacular, the te reo, the melodies along the line, and it is so skin-prickling good.
The first part reclaims the girl. This is girlhood and it is feminism. It is dangerous and vulnerable, mermaid girls racing the boys in the water, girl bonding, girl bounding, the step-brother test, horoscopes, delivering kittens, armouring the danger-girl, becoming winter, the East Coast map carried inside. A road map of adolescence. And always the scintillating rapids of writing. Bliss.
And I remember the year we were the two strongest ‘girl swimmers’ in our syndicate. This meant we were forever forced to race the boys for Western feminism and you would always win, even against the boys who were so like men the teachers treated them as if they were more muscle than human.
from ‘Lil Mermaidz’
The middle section is a sequence of she he prose poems, a shift in key, a miniature novel in verse, where love is threaded at a distance, and we all might have different things to say about the he, about the she, the tyranny of separation, and the tyranny of waiting. The sexiness of everything. Hierarchies. The love affair, the love relationship, ah what to call this, as dialogue and desire unfold in restaurants and hotel rooms, and the restaurants are sweet and soured with taste and preference. I am almost eating the rice and peanuts (well not the meat), relishing the ‘tacky’ surroundings. And it is sharp edge reading this love, this like love like suite. Think of the way you might look at a photograph and everything is sharp edged with life. And light. And yes the dark shadow jags.
The third section returns to free verse, freedom to break the line, to make it clear that sometimes politics is personal, and that maybe politics is always personal, and that poetry is the the whenua, the maunga, the ocean, the awa. Poetry is sky and breath and beating heart. Tayi’s poetry is grounding liberating speaking out singing. This is what I get when I read Rangikura. It is poetry, but it is also life, more than anything this is poetry as life.
Tayi’s collection is framed by an opening poem and a last poem, ancestor poems, like two palms holding the poetry tenderly, lovingly. Hold this book in your reading hands and check out the electricity when you stand in the river, the ocean. Reading Tayi spins you so sweetly, so sharply, along the line, off the line. I love this book so much.
I sat in the lap of my great-grandmother until the flax of her couldn’t take it. So she unravelled herself and wrapped around me like a blanket and at her touch the privilege of me was a headrush as I remember making dresses out of sugar packets, my bro getting blown up in Forlì, my grandfather commemorated under one tree even though he forced himself into our bloodline and then abandoned me and me and me.
from ‘My Ancestors Ride with Me’
Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Apanui/Ngāti Porou) was born in 1995 and lives in Wellington. Her first book, Poūkahangatus, won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award in 2019.
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.
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.
from Pasture and Flock: New & Selected Poems, Auckland University Press, 2018
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
From The Facts, Victoria University Press, 2018
How time walks
I woke up and smelled the sun mummy
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
sometimes when he sleeps
I lock the windows
to secure him in this world
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.
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.
from How to Live, Auckland University Press, 2019
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.
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.
just some huge rude dinner plate you left unwashed
brilliant with bioluminescent mould
how dare you rhapsodize my loneliness into orbit
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
to lunar dust
in New Poets 5, Auckland University Press, 2019, picked by Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor
I never meant to want you.
the laughter and the toast
the talking and the muffins
somewhere in our Tuesday mornings
I started falling for you.
Now I can’t go back
and I’m not sure if I want to.
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.
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 Stuff, Starling, 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 song‘ takes 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.
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.
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 theBicycle (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
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
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
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:
tell me if this
is a poem
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?
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.