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.
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.
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’
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.
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
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 Mimicry, Sweet Mammalian, Starling, The 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
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.
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.