I’m forcing myself to buy one packet of toilet paper
and four cans of baby beetroot. A woman is taking photos of all
the different kinds of sanitary pads to send to her daughter.
She steps back and bumps into me. I’m trying not to freak out,
I’m forcing myself to walk slowly around the supermarket
walk slowly walk slowly walk slowly.
I’m going back to the health and beauty aisle and searching for
Rescue Remedy and not finding it
I see a guy I met on Tinder ages ago and didn’t sleep with
and he says, Well, how do you tell the story?
and gives me a look as if it is a thing that neither of us
could know, as if it is a thing perhaps no one could know.
In the carpark a couple of young bogans
stick their heads out of the car window
and cough as loud as they can, laugh and drive off.
I’m reading what the microbiologist has said about
You have to let it sit for ten minutes
or you’re just moving the bacteria around.
I thought I was doing a good job keeping my mum safe.
I thought I was keeping her safe, so if she does die,
at least I will know I did all the right things
but I’ve just been moving it around.
I’m listening to the bugle call in the kitchen.
Jesus isn’t coming back or Armageddon
or even the end of Level 4
but here is the moment of silence, so I stop
whatever ten-minute meal I am making
and remember those who have fallen: the Anzacs and the Covid
cluster down the road at the Rosewood Rest Home.
Tusiata Avia from The Savage ColoniserBook Victoria University Press, 2020
Tusiata Avia is an acclaimed poet, performer and children’s writer. Her previous poetry collections are Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (2004; also staged as a theatre show, most recently Off-Broadway, winning the 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year), Bloodclot (2009) and the Ockham-shortlisted Fale Aitu | Spirit House (2016). Tusiata has held the Fulbright Pacific Writer’s Fellowship at the University of Hawai‘i in 2005 and the Ursula Bethell Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury in 2010. She was the 2013 recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, and in 2020 was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts. Her latest collection, The Savage ColoniserBook, has just been published by Victoria University Press.
‘And I think it is this sense of connection, in all Kate’s poems, which sent me scrambling for a word like spiritual. Because what I feel when I read Kate’s work is that the great mysteries of the world, the omnipresent magnificence, the unexplainable and the truly awesome, rest in being human among humans. Take your ley lines and chakras and give me the oesophagus and the eyeball, the memory of a dusty school hall, that night, that party, remember the small blasts of happiness, our bloody painful hearts.’
Maria McMillan, launch speech for Kate Camp’s How to Be Happy Though Human
Poet, essayist and literary commentator, Kate Camp has published six previous poetry collections. Her debut collection, Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars, won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 1999 Montana NZ Book Awards. Her fourth, The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls, won the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards Best Book of Poetry. Her poems have appeared in magazines and journals in New Zealand and internationally. For a number of years she has discussed classic literature – Kate’s Klassics – on with Kim Hill’s Saturday spot on Radio NZ.
To mark Victoria University Press’s publication of Kate’s How to Be Happy Though Human, Kate answered a few questions for Poetry Shelf.
So many things can go wrong
inside a human life, it’s almost comical.
You find yourself in a house,
in a night, with everyone you love
breathing in and out somewhere
and if you thought about it properly
you’d just throw up in terror.
from ‘Panic button’
Paula: Have you always been an avid reader and writer?
Kate: Family legend is that I came home from my first day of school and told my mother I could read. She said, oh ok read this. I replied, well I don’t know any words yet.
I didn’t learn to read particularly early, but once I did I quickly became obsessive about it, all the usual reading under the covers, walking down the street with a book on my way to school, re-reading books over and over again.
Paula: Can you name a few poets that have caught your attention across the decades?
Kate: Lauris Edmond is a key one for me among New Zealand poets. I’m reading Fleur Adcock’s selected poems at the moment and remembering what an important influence she was for me early on. And Jenny Bornholdt, her work and mine are so different, and yet I always feel such an affinity with her poems.
In more recent years / decades I’ve got into a lot of poetry in translation. Czesław Miłosz is one I come back to again and again, and Wisława Szymborska. Like Bornholdt, Mary Oliver is a poet I feel is very different from me, but I love her.
Paula: You acknowledge your writing group. How important is it to be part of this as a poet?
Kate: My whole career I’ve had a writing group. When I first started writing seriously I was on the creative writing course at Victoria in 1995, so I was in a weekly workshop. After that finished, around half the course members formed a group together and we met for years. Then in 2003 I joined my current group and it’s been going that whole time.
They are my first readers, my best readers, my greatest motivators. We follow the “Iowa workshop” style where we read our poem aloud, the others talk about it, and the poet just listens and says nothing. It’s such a brilliant, powerful way to understand how a poem is landing.
A liquorice cable
wires hand to mouth.
raced the dawn home.
Asphalt remains lively
weeks after its laying.
from ‘Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars’
Paula: Your debut collection Unfamiliar Legend of the Stars came out in 1998. Were you writing poetry much before this?
Kate: I’d always written poems in a notebook but never really shown them to anyone or thought I’d do anything with them. I knew about the creative writing course at Victoria, I was a student there studying English and I knew that Emily Perkins, who was the older sister of a school friend, had done the course and become a published author.
I thought, I’ll apply for the course three times, if I don’t get in I’ll just give up on it. I got in the first time I applied and it was really only then that I started writing with any focus or seriousness.
Paula: That first book really caught my attention – it felt fresh and rendered the world alive with possibilities. Can you remember what motivated you as a poet then, what mattered when you shaped a poem?
Kate: I think what motivated me then was a sense that I saw the world in a certain way and I wanted to share that way of seeing with others. And I guess I felt the power of poetry, and I wanted to wield that power myself.
What mattered to me then was to write a poem that was clever, surprising, and made you feel something.
Having said that, when I’m actually writing a poem I try not to think at all. About anything. I find that gets in the way. The Canadian poet Christian Bok said “take care of the sound and the sense will take care of itself.” That’s how I’ve always written, just going with what comes up and trying not to switch my thinking brain on until I’ve finished the draft, and it’s time to edit.
Violin was out the back of my flat when I was nineteen.
I would put the speakers in the garden
and play ‘Be Mine Tonight’ again and again
running inside to rewind the tape.
He’s shocked to find I am middle aged.
I’m not shocked. Inside me are Russian dolls
of the women and girls I’ve been before
each more beautiful and unhappy than the current.
from ‘One train may hide another’
Paula: Your new collection How to Be Happy Though Human (you have a deft hand with titles!) is a gathering of new and selected poems. I like the way you have placed the new poems first and then we move through your books from the debut to the most recent. Often the new poems go at the end. I love this choice! Any comments?
Kate: I read a lot of selected poems and I tend to read them backwards, in chunks, so that I’m reading the poet’s most recent poems first. Otherwise with a poet like Milosz you’re starting in the 1940s and the poems can feel really dated. But if you start with the new ones, by the time you get back there you’re kind of in the zone.
That doesn’t really apply to my selected though as my career hasn’t been that long, at least not by Milosz standards! I just wanted to start with new poems because, you know, new poems are always the ones you love the most. The best poem is the next one.
And I go back to Saturday
we dance with other people
other people’s children,
create community with physics.
Memory is a kind of mourning.
We take each other’s hands
as if they were made for that
and we form a circle.
from ‘How to be happy though human’
Paula: Your new book offers perfect routes through the rewards of your poetry. The physical world is refreshed, relationships between things and people are made visible, there are surprising connections, and always a glorious poetic fluency. Did you encounter any poetry stumbling blocks or epiphanies across the decades?
Kate: There was a fairly big gap between Beauty Sleep and The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls. I was having a crap time in my personal life, and I felt really stuck creatively. I was scared to write about my failures, my despair, my loneliness, my fucked up life. And I was scared to write about “the human condition” like a Milosz or a Mary Oliver, I felt – who am I to write about the meaning of life? On both fronts my ego and my vulnerability was in the way.
But then I realised, the artists I most admired were writing poems and songs of utter devastation and heartbreak and disaster. And I didn’t think they were losers, I thought they were magnificent.
And I realised that I was never going to be anything other than a middle class New Zealand woman who grew up on Timbacryl adverts and 70s singer songwriters, and that I had just as much right as the next poet to plumb the depths of the human psyche.
I think that book marked a “fuck it” point for me where I decided just to write the poems that are in me, however depressing, distasteful or megalomaniacal they may be.
I take the last few turns in darkness
steep, short of breath
these legs have been mine all my life.
Hot hands. Small nights within my lungs.
We are fortunate to live in a world.
We are fortunate to live in a world
where some person, some man
is painting railings on the zig zag
and when he finished
he could have raised his eyes
and seen, beyond the black-tree hills
some ragged and fast-moving clouds.
from ‘Walking up the zig zag’
Paula: I just adore the new poems housed under the title ‘How to Be Happy Though Human’. Now and then I post a poem that has really haunted me in a new collection – and this whole section haunts me. The poems stick to me – I think the title is a key. These poems are intimate and revelatory, physical and movement-rich. Again the surprising juxtapositions: hanging out the washing, Watergate, your mother. Scenes become luminous. Family matters. There is a poetic heartbeat. Would you see any changes in the poetry process?
Kate: Almost all of these poems have been written since I came back from the Menton fellowship, where I was writing prose – a collection of memoir essays. I can definitely see the influence of that. These poems are looser, more prosy in style, and in many cases are straightforwardly autobiographical. They’re also long. Pulling together this book made me realise that my poems have got very long lately!
Paula: Do you have doubt tagging along? Is there a particular poem that was hard to write?
Kate: Most poems I try to write either don’t happen at all, or turn out to be not that good and get abandoned. But every poem I write that turns out good, I write in one go, in an hour or so. I will revise it later but usually not a huge amount. That’s just my process, it’s kind of scattershot but when it’s working, it’s easy, so I don’t really find any poem hard to write. I just throw away a lot of attempted poems.
My main doubt is whether I will ever write a good poem again. The first sensation when I write something I like is relief.
Tom Waits records the sound of frying chicken
that’s how he achieves his pops and crackles
Our old unit had a crooked arm,
it was a trunk of wood with woven speakers.
As I child I worried about forgetting:
the hexagonal handle, a creamy honey cell,
that flaw in the lino resembling Donald Duck
while the others of its kind looked like grey bells.
sometimes life would seem too big, even then
an empty Sunday when you drifted as a ghost.
I saw Bonnie and Clyde on such a day,
as I recall, in black and white
from ‘Snow White’s coffin’
Paula: What poem really works or matters to you?
Kate: The poem “Snow White’s Coffin” is an important poem for me. It covers a lot of abiding interests for me – found facts, childhood memories, what makes life meaningful when you’re an atheist. It draws on something I thought on a lot when I was living in Berlin, the tension between intellect as the most human thing of all and the intellect as dehumanising. There’s also a tone of anger and despair in it which is quite primal – the word “howling” is in it, which is not a word anyone puts in a poem lightly.
In my last few books, the title poem is a poem that is really important to me – one that functions as a kind of tuning fork for the whole collection.
Paula: Do you have any tips for emerging poets?
Kate: Read poetry by other people. If you don’t like reading poetry, you’re not a poet, you’re just a bit of a dick.
Paula: What else do you love to do apart from writing?
Kate: Conversations and laughing are my favourite things. I love to sing with my choir. I love to watch Netflix. I love to dance. I love to drink to excess, rarely but with gusto. I love doing escape rooms with my nephew. I love looking out the window while drinking tea and listing to podcasts about American politics.
essa may ranapiri’s work frequently explores the uncomfortable boundaries that exist in binary gender, and uses form and technique to push readers away from conventional approaches to both gender and poetry. Everything in their piece ‘she cut her face shaving’ works to push the reader towards a new space, from the vocabulary and imagery to the way the lines are arranged on the page.
The arrangement of the work on the page exemplifies the subtle ways that ranapiri affects the reader. Rather than proceeding straight down the page, ‘she cut her face shaving’ begins to drift right from the second line. The final shape evokes images that reflect those in the poem – the drip of blood, the curve of a neck- but also reflect a preoccupation with resisting convention. Throughout their collection ransack, words drift and explode across the page in varying arrangements. The visual aspect connects to the subject matter, which centres on ranapiri’s identity as a takatapui and non-binary individual. This poem is a microcosm of an effect found throughout this work- the reader’s eye is physically drawn away from conventional pattern, into a new space and shape that ranapiri has created.
Form and content collide again in the fifth line. Ending this line with the word testosterone is a confirmation of a non-cis experience that is only hinted at the beginning of the poem. Positioned at half-way, this line offers an opportunity to the reader to consider the first section in a new light, and prepares them for the impact of the second section. The deliberate use of pronoun immediately afterwards reinforces this transitionary moment. The pronoun use is sparing throughout this work, but rich with meaning, drawing connection between ownership and the body. The title itself gives context to the poem, ‘her chin’ positions the reader as an outsider in this situation. Garments and body parts that could be ascribed ownership are not, instead they become ‘the pencil skirt’, ‘the hair’, ‘the jaw’. Ownership appears again in this vital fifth line- ‘that testosterone/ bought her’. After this moment, both the Adam’s apple and the ‘lateness’ become hers again. The pronouns here own this experience, and are unafraid to do so.
The slash is a dominant feature of this poem, and serves multiple purposes. One that immediately pushes itself forward is the echo, again, of the ink on the page and the action of the work. Lines that are not broken up by the slash are broken up instead by the line break. Nothing goes on for longer than four words. These short, sharp lines, remind the reader of the pattern of shaving, the short strokes, and in one particularly poignant use – the ‘/cut/’ of hair seems at once to reference the ‘cut’ of the title. Additionally, it breaks the flow of the reader. There appears to be no particular rhythm to the slashes or line breaks, simply a disruption. The disruption to the face by the cut, perhaps, or the disruption to the presumed reader represented by a non-binary figure.
Another strong use of the slash is the way it abstracts the body. Every part of the body, down to the clothes being worn, have their own line. Here the body is represented not as a whole, but as separate pieces. The reader is invited to consider the way we read these pieces as masculine or feminine within the context of the poem and its title. The limited pronoun use works in conjunction with this, separating the pieces not only from each other, but also from a singular ownership of this body. Once this space between body and self is established, ranapiri jams the masculine and feminine together, setting the reader off balance. Gender has remained ambiguous before this moment, and could be intentionally misread to provide a more cis-normative view. ranapiri quashes this in the seventh line, bringing that all important ‘her adam’s apple’ into play. Immediately the subject of the poem comes into view, shedding new light on to the readers experience, and preparing us for the final two lines.
What all of these techniques have in common are the spaces both literal and figurative in the story. ranapiri seems to be again referencing the final part of their work. What is missed out, what we are ‘late’ to, preoccupies this poem, haunting every line and every sparing word. ranapiri creates in this work a space where identity can be celebrated and mourned in the same breath, the past and present as well as hopes for the future tumbled up together.
Rachel Lockwood is Hawke’s Bay born and bred but now living in Wellington and studying a BA at VUW. She was a 2019 National Schools Poetry Award finalist, and has previously been published in Starling.
You can hear Rachel read her poem in Starling 10 here
essa may ranapiri (Ngāti Raukawa/Tainui/Ngāti Takatāpui/Clan Gunn/Highgate) is a person or some shit / or whatever / they wrote a book of poems called ransack / it’s still in th world / the only time they use they/them pronouns for themselves is in these bios / isn’t that funny / thx goes out to their ancestors / who are as big as everything / just wow / just everything / they will write until they’re dead
Monday Poem: You can read essa’s poem ‘when i was born i didn’t say anything’ here
One of the things I like about what poetry can allow is the holding open of a sense of mystery even when there is nothing obvious that needs to be solved. I find this in Bill Manhire’s elliptical “Across Brooklyn.” That it is a poem about mortality is no mystery: the very first line places the speaker of the poem in “the street where they still make coffins.” We are given, in fact, a very vividly realised scene, with concrete details we can visualise, and hear – planks and nails, darkening entrances, the sound of someone whistling. Yet the significance of these details doesn’t seem quite limited to the literal meaning of them, though it is hard in this poem to point to any obvious symbolic meaning they might hold. The mystery of the poem is, perhaps, simply the mystery of our unease about our own mortality, in this poem figured as a kind of uncanny tourism:
This is the street where they still make coffins:
the little workshops, side by side.
I pass them with my daughter on our walk to the river.
Are we seeking the bridge itself,
Or the famous, much-reported view?
A few planks and nails lie around,
And each of the entrances seems to darken.
Far back, out of sight, someone is whistling.
Yes, I suppose we do walk a little faster.
There is a faint noise of hammering, too.
from Lifted Victoria University Press, 2005, reissued as a VUP Classic in 2018
The first line of the poem introduces the coffins that the rest of the poem seems to try to run away from, passing the coffins by on the way to the bridge. Brooklyn Bridge is well known for its view – these are tourists, looking for well-known sights – but this is a bridge well known in poetry too, so well known that I misremembered the title of the poem not as “Across Brooklyn” but as the more expected “Across Brooklyn Bridge.” I might have been thinking of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” or Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge.” Even reading poetry we can read like tourists, wanting to keep revisiting familiar or famous sites, seeing what we expect to find, getting ahead of ourselves. But in our search for the already-famous, we might find something unexpected, something unsettling – though what could be more famous than death?
The coupling together of tourism and mortality does something strange to the sense of audience, too, that this poem evokes. Lyric poetry often involves a certain strangeness of address, so that reading a poem can be like eavesdropping on an improbable relationship, as a poet addresses a rose, or talks to themselves, or addresses a lover whose replies can only be imagined. This poem seems to draw particular attention to the strangeness of lyric address, the last couplet in particular throwing a sense of address somehow off kilter. The ending, with the introduction of “a faint noise of hammering, too,” is curiously inconclusive, bringing in one more additional detail, as if in a hurry to get it in before the poem ends. It comes as the second line of a couplet that seems to have been already interrupted by its own first line, “Yes, I suppose we do walk a little faster.” This seems to be a reply – but no one has asked a question. Yet there is a sense, perhaps, of someone else present, someone this anecdote is being reported to. Perhaps this sense of someone else there, but not there (are we, the readers, beginning to feel a little ghostly ourselves?) might add to the unease of the poem, a poem that seems to speed up as if hurrying past its own subject matter. This is no ordinary tourism anecdote, that we might expect to be told in the past tense, perhaps with some pictures to accompany it. If this is a tourism anecdote, why is it being told in the present tense? Is it still happening? Are we ever going to get across Brooklyn to the bridge, let alone to the other side?
Anna Jackson made her debut in AUP New Poets 1 before publishing six collections with Auckland University Press, including I, Clodia, and Other Portraits (2014). She has a DPhil from Oxford and is now an associate professor in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington. Jackson is the author of Diary Poetics: Form and Style in Writers’ Diaries 1915–1962 (Routledge, 2010) and, with Charles Ferrall, British Juvenile Fiction 1850–1950: The Age of Adolescence (Routledge, 2009).
Bill Manhire’s most recent books include Some Things to Place in a Coffin (2017), Tell Me My Name (with Hannah Griffin and Norman Meehan, 2017) and The Stories of Bill Manhire (2015). He was New Zealand’s inaugural poet laureate, and founded and until recently directed the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. He has edited major anthologies, including, with Marion McLeod, the now classic Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories (1984).
Welcome to the Poetry Shelf gathering on National Poetry Day. One of my favourite Poetry Days was in Wellington when I jumped in a taxi and went from one event to the next: Vic Books, the National Library, Unity Books, the Book Hound, Miaow. Listening to others read, reading a snippet myself or mc-ing, it felt like the best thing in the world (well right up there with early morning beach walks, and cooking meals, writing secret things, reading books for hours on end).
These days it feels good to count blessings because there is so much toxic stuff out there. I feel utterly privileged to get sent loads of poetry books published in Aotearoa, and to celebrate some of them on the blog. So many times this year I have picked up a new book and felt goosebumps as I settled into the poem thickets and clearings. You know the feeling – when the music and the mystery and the freshness, the challenges and the sensualness and the connective currents – make you feel so darn good.
I invited a handful of poets to send me an audio or video to celebrate National Poetry Day – it was over to them what they did: read their own poems, read the poems of others, share a favourite book or poet, muse on poetry. Bernadette Hall drove 30 km to hook up with Doc Drumheller and Rangiora Library staff at the band rotunda to create her video. Amy Brown did two versions, one with interruptions and a wee poem from her son Robin. I posted both for you! Student E Wen Wong recorded a poem by Cilla McQueen.
I have been getting these files as Auckland is in level 3 – and everyone else level 2 – and what a treat to listen to them. Poetry can do so much! The past few months it has been of immense comfort, and the way so many of you say yes to my requests.
As some of you know I had a melt down yesterday as WordPress has put us onto a new system that I find hard to manage yet. My daughter helped me a bit, but I had to make a few compromises, and one poet will make a future appearance. Thank you for the boosts on social media.
Happy National Poetry Day everyone. Dip and delve into this glorious and utterly special poetry gathering.
Amy Brown reads two poems of her own: ’16 August 2016′ and ‘Pacing Poem’ from Neon Daze Victoria University Press, 2019. She also reads Airini Beautrais’s ‘Flow’ from Victoria University Press, 2017. Amy sent me two versions, one with interruptions by her son Robin (he does a poem at the end) and one without Robin present. I couldn’t pick as I loved so both, so you get to choose which one to listen to. I think the Robin one is rather special.
Amy Brown reads two poems with the help of Robin
Amy Brown reads the two poems without help
David Eggleton reads ‘The Sound and the Fury’ filmed by Richard C. Wallis in Waikouaiti, North Otago, on Wednesday 19.08.20. Not his tokotoko but a walking stick. Still waiting for the tokotoko ceremony at Matahiwi marae.
Erik Kennedy reads ‘There Is a Man Dancing on the Rudder of an Enormous Cargo Ship’
Bernadette Hall reads two sonnets, one published in Aotearotica and the other in Landfall 239. Her guest Doc Drumheller reads his haiku in Landfall 239. Bernadette had travelled 30 kms to the band rotunda in Rangiora to film this reading with the help of Paula and Daniel from Rangiora Library.
Marty Smith reads ‘Agnus Dei’ from Horse with Hat, Victoria University Press, 2013
Ruby Solly reads two poems, a very early one and a very new one
Chris Tse reads ‘(Green-Nature)’
Louise Wallace reads three poems on a women/mother/daughter theme: by herself, (from Bad Things Victoria University Press, 2017), and by Naomii Seah and Modi Deng (from the latest issue of Starling).
E Wen Wong reads ‘Vegetable Garden Poem iv’ by Cilla McQueen from Axis: Poems and drawings Otago University Press 2001
Amy Brown is a New Zealand poet, novelist and teacher, living in Melbourne. In 2012 she completed a PhD in creative writing at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of The Propaganda Poster Girl (VUP, 2008), which was shortlisted at the 2009 New Zealand Book Awards, The Odour of Sanctity (VUP, 2013), a contemporary epic poem, and Neon Daze (VUP, 2019), a verse journal of the first four months of motherhood. She is also the author of Pony Tales, a series of children’s novels.
Doc Drumheller was born in South Carolina and has lived in NZ for more than half his life. He has worked in award-winning groups for theatre and music and has published 10 collections of poetry. His poems have been translated into more than 20 languages. He lives in Oxford, where he edits and publishes the literary journal, Catalyst.
David Eggleton is a Dunedin-based poet and writer. He is the current Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate. His Selected Poems is forthcoming.
Bernadette Hall is Otago born and bred. Following a long career as a high school teacher in Dunedin and Christchurch, she has now lived 17 years in a renovated bach at Amberley Beach in the Hurunui, North Canterbury where she has built up a beautiful garden. Her 12th collection of poetry, Fancy Dancing (VUP), will be launched at the WORD festival in Christchurch in November. ‘It’s as close as I’ll ever get to writing an autobiography,’ she says, laughing. And as for the wilful sonnets that explode in the final pages of this book, she wonders where on earth they came from. ‘It was such fun writing them,’ she says, ‘as if I‘d kicked down the stable doors and taken to the hills.’ In 2015 she collaborated with Robyn Webster on Matakaea, Shag Point, an art /text installation exhibited at the Ashburton ArGallery. In the same year she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for outstanding achievement in Poetry. In 2017 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to New Zealand literature.
Erik Kennedy is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018), and he is co-editing a book of climate change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific forthcoming from Auckland University Press in 2021. His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, Landfall, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, the TLS, and Western Humanities Review. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Bill Manhire Aside from publishing his own widely acclaimed poetry, Bill Manhire has edited a number of anthologies and written extensively on New Zealand literature. He was New Zealand’s first Poet Laureate. His most recent collections include Tell Me My Name and Things to Place in a Coffin. Victoria University Press are publishing his new collection Wow November 2020.
Emma Neale is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham NZ Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Emma has received a number of literary fellowships, residencies and awards, the most recent of which is the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for 2020. Her first collection of short stories, Party Games, is due out late 2020/early 2021. Emma lives and works in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, and she is the current editor of Landfall, New Zealand’s longest-running literary journal.
Marty Smith’s Horse with hat won the 2014 Jesse Mackay award for Best First Book of Poetry. Some of the book looks at the cost to her father of not talking about the war. ‘Agnus Dei’ is a poem that crosses religion over into war, although it looks like farming. She grew up riding beside her father, hence the horse strand in Horse with hat, hence the book she is writing about the obsession of people who risk their lives to ride racehorses. She would risk her life right now to ride a racehorse, if she were allowed.
Ruby Solly is a Kai Tahu / Waitaha writer and musician from Aotearoa, New Zealand. She has had poetry and creative non-fiction published in Landfall, Sport, Poetry NZ, Starling, Mimicry, Minarets, E-Tangata, The Spinoff, and Pantograph Punch amongst others. Victoria University Press will be publishing her debut book of poetry ‘Tōku Pāpā’ in 2021. Ruby is also a scriptwriter and her film ‘Super Special’ which aims to share knowledge around traditional Māori views and practices around menstruation has been featured in film festivals within New Zealand and the US. As a musician, she has played with artists such as Yo-yo Ma as part of his Bach Project, Trinity Roots, Whirimako Black, Rikki Gooch, and Ariana Tikao. Ruby is a taonga puoro (traditional Māori musical instruments) player and therapist with a first-class master’s in music therapy where she conducted kaupapa Māori research into the use of taonga puoro in acute mental health. As a taonga puoro player and therapist, she is privileged to work around Aotearoa with people from all walks of life sharing the taonga of her ancestors. She will be beginning a PhD to further her research this year. Her first album, ‘Pōneke’, which also features poetry, is available from rubysolly.bandcamp.cpm
Chris Tse is the author of How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC, both published by Auckland University Press. He is a regular book reviewer on Radio New Zealand and contributor to Capital’s Re-Verse column. He is currently co-editing an anthology of queer writers from Aotearoa.
Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago on women, [domestic] paralysis and poetic form.
E Wen Wong is in her final year at Burnside High School, where she is Head Girl for 2020. Last year, her poem Boston Building Blockswon first prize in the Year 12 category of the Poetry New Zealand Student Yearbook Competition.
Back in Level Three lockdown, but this time I can read, despite the wide awake nights. Rata Gordon’s debut poetry collection Second Person is mesmerising. It held me in the grip of poetry from first page until last. Yes! I devoured this collection in one sitting and then went back to dawdle on the poems that pulled me back in.
I have been musing on the way poetry can offer the reader a chain reaction of poem joy (among many other things of course). But joy seems like a good thing to imbibe at the moment.
Reading Second Person filled me with poetry joy.
This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. My first joy is visual as the poems are brocaded with hues and gleams. It is as though an artist has animated poems with their colour palette: ‘I painted sonnets on the wallpaper’. I adore the way a smattering of colour words spike the poems to gorgeous new levels. It fills me with joy.
I’m dressed in yellow leaking
gorse seeds out my pockets like
crumbs I am dressed in white skin
drinking from the spout of a
from ‘The pregnant pioneer looks over her shoulder’
The second joy is the joy of sound. Many of the lines are short, the rhythm breathy with ample white space at the end of the line. These poems flow like a honey current. Again I am filled me with joy. At times it is the rhythm of walking. At time is is the rhythm of lying on the couch and looking out a wide window and breathing in and out, in and out. You inhale the poem.
As much as there is the physicality and a sensual present, there are also signposts to behind-the-scenes, to what is hinted at but not detailed. A taste from this poem for example:
In Delhi the dust
gets up your nose and into
your veins it swims
through the insides
of your bones
In April you want to hurt
yourself in the hotel room
but you don’t becuase a mango
will make it better
You walk through the streets
in the second person as if
watching yourself from behind
your backpack and your hands
are limp but your heart is
This is all you have
to look forward to
your heartbeat and a
everything else has dissolved:
There is an unspoken story signposted here, and it may be real or fictional. It is the mood of the speaker, the state of mind, that holds as you read. The speaker becomes second person, alive, that beating heart, that mango luminous. I am musing on the way, as we write poems, as we insert ourselves above, between, behind and in the lines, we always become second person, whether past present future. I am filled with joy at this thought: the peering into the self inserted into the poem that is close at hand and walking away. Ah.
A third joy is the poetry stitching that shows through at times. Little windows open onto the writing of a poem, its making doesn’t just appear out of thin air, but is something altogether more mysterious, complicated, self-sustaining. I especially love ‘I find slaters’ with its surprising curves and bridges. Here is the middle bit:
I am rifling through this poem
trying to find
its hidden meaning.
If I rifle through fallen leaves
I find slaters.
The leaves are being digested.
How much twiddling do trees do?
Do they doodle on the sky?
Do they do a little spiral?
Second Person is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. Just the ticket when you want to lie back on the couch and nestle into a welcome and very satisfying poetry retreat. I love this book.
Rata’s poetry has appeared in a number of Aotearoa journals. She works in the arts and mental health.
Sado Mikaela Nyman, Victoria University Press, 2020
At the end of the day, poetry and fiction are just different languages in which to express what matters most to me.
Mikaela Nyman, VUP Q & A
During lockdown Poetry Shelf hosted a virtual launch for Mikaela Nyman’s debut novel Sado. To miss out on the celebration of your first novel with friends and family, with people buying your books and you signing them is a big thing, and it seems so many of the books that were due during lockdown have missed out in other ways. Bookshops were shut, print media was on life-raft rations. And we were all struggling with subterranean anxiety, surreal connections with a surreal world. What mattered became a key question. I was delighted to see Mikaela has recently celebrated the book at a launch event with Elizabeth Smither.
Books are getting less attention in print media at the moment, but thank heavens for the commitment of some editors (Canvas is still doing its utmost best to include NZ reviews). And thank heavens for online review activity. But I do hear authors saying their recent books have disappeared into the ether.
I recently read a wonderful Q & A that Mikaela did for Victoria University Press; it has prompted me to post the link here and include a few personal reactions to the novel.
She doesn’t trust her memory to retain the sharp edges. One day this will appear no worse than a regular spring storm. People will try to convince her it wasn’t half as terrifying, that she’s made it up, that they watched movies and drank wine or cups of spice tea while the storm blew itself out. It would be unfair to anyone who was caught in this cyclone and in the storms to come. Because there are going to be more of them, increasing in frequency and intensity as the earth and the oceans warm up and create this atmospheric oscillation, this unpredictable lashing and swirling.
Reading Sado during a time of world catastrophe – when some people are struggling to cope with the effect of Covid on their lives, when some people have greater access to what they need – is timely. Mikaela’s novel is set in 2015 in Vanuata at the time Tropical Cyclone Pam hit. The devastation is widespread – physical yes, but it also impacts on lives in myriad ways. Cathryn is an NGO worker from Aotearoa, with a local boyfriend and a teenage son. Faia is a radio journalist, a community organiser who works hard for women. There are various tensions between contemporary life and tradition. However the blazing-hot kernel of the story is a car accident where a young baby is killed, and kastom (custom) declares a child must be offered in compensation.
It grew out of the realisation that Vanuatu didn’t seem to feature on people’s radar in New Zealand – despite the fact that it is only a three-hour direct flight away, and we have thousands of Ni-Vanuatu come every year to work in our vineyards and orchards.
Mikaela, VUP Q & A
Patriarchy is a dominant force – women’s lives are regulated with scant access to power, individual choices, work opportunities. Justice is called into question by different actions of the Supreme Court and the Council of Chiefs. Yet Sado showcases the power of women to connect, to support, to communicate.
My nagging question: how did Mikaela get to write a novel outside her own culture and negotiate ideas of trespass? Mikaela was born in Finland, spent four years in Vanuatu and now lives in New Plymouth with her family. She writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction in both English and Swedish, and has published a collection of poetry in the latter. Her PhD in Creative Writing (IIML) involved a collaboration with Ni-Vanuatu writers. In her endnotes Mikaela describes Sado as a work of fiction shaped by her own experience of the cyclone, and her enduring friendships with writers and former colleagues in Vanuatu. Her expressed hope, having found only a few slender volumes by Ni-Vanuatu women, is that her novel will encourage ‘women writers from Vanuatu to tell their own stories’.
The questions mounted as I read – but have in fact been addressed by the Victoria University Press interview:
And so I chose to become an ally and supporter, and perhaps a conduit for New Zealanders to glean a different perspective of their Pacific neighbour. To help explain what it feels like to be at the receiving end of such a natural disaster in our Pacific neighbourhood and to have to deal with an unprecedented influx of responders and well-intended, but perhaps misplaced, relief efforts. In parallel, I’ve shared my writing, my knowledge and skills with emerging Ni-Vanuatu women writers, facilitating creative writing workshops and collaborative poetry events, in order to find my place in the world and enable Ni-Vanuatu writers to grow as writers and see their work published. ‘Nothing about us without us,’ one of my Māori colleagues said to me when we discussed the ethos informing my research and novel writing. It reinforced my decision that working in alliance and collaboration would be the best ethical choice. Taking heart from the fact that these Ni-Vanuatu women writers were among my first readers and encouraged me to keep writing this world that they recognised, while at the same time ensuring I left space for Ni-Vanuatu writers to tell their own stories. The kind of insider stories I couldn’t possibly tell.
Mikaela, VUP Q & A
So for me the novel has two vital impacts. The way I muse on the context in which the book was written. The slow surfacing of women’s voices, women writers, in Vanuatu. Poet and academic, Selina Tusitala Marsh has spent a number of years researching women writers across Pacific regions, working hard at finding ways to make their voices visible, and importantly, to find an apt expression of her own reading engagements. Selina’s book is still in the making but will be a significant arrival. If Vanuatu women’s books can springboard from Mikaela’s projects and engagements, along with the efforts of local women, then that is a blessing.
The second impact is the narrative itself: gripping, character driven, building complexity in its representation of place, people, culture. That Mikaela is a poet is made clear in the sentences and rhythmical fluency, at times lyrical, at times economical. I have no difficulty with the interplay of different registers. In a sense it mirrors the entanglement of culture, relationships and experience that is paramount. At the moment, in a world struggling with clashing perspectives, needs and outcomes, everything is complicated, so many challenges.
The novel’s complexity is also placed in sharp relief by the focus on various characters. Even in the aftermath of catastrophe, life carries on. Relationships might change, circumstances are affected, and what is normal shifts. So many entangled threads: Carolyn’s teenage son, her Ni-Vanuatu boyfriend, her mother, her attachment to Aotearoa, her friendships, her reaction to cultural difference, and of course the impact of climate change. All manner of storms – minor and major – that affect individuals, partnerships, families in all manner of ways.
As a reader I need multiple views and multiple engagements. Sado does open Vanuatu for me, I feel like I have visited somewhere I have never been before, and encountered versions of it through the eyes and thoughts and feelings of a visitor, a visitor who has lived there. I am grateful for this book that has moved me on many levels, but like Mikaela, I hunger for space to make as many voices and stories and concerns visible and viable.
Listen to Mikaela read an extract at her Poetry Shelf online launch
Rata Gordon is a poet, dance teacher, mother and arts-therapist in training. Second Person is her first collection of poetry, and was published in June 2020 by Victoria University Press. She is currently based in Raglan. Her website
Natalie Morrison has an MA in Creative Writing from the Institute of Modern Letters, where she received the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry in 2016. She lives and works in Wellington. Victoria University Press recently published Pins, Natalie’s debut collection. The book is most definitely poetry, the kind of poetry that affects your breathing patterns because it is so good, so original, so addictive. But it also resembles a letter, as the speaker addresses her missing sister, and a catalogue of fascinations, as she tracks an obsession with pins. The collective result is book that centres upon family, and then radiates out into pocket-book narratives of loss, curiosity, yearnings, attachment. The title itself ‘pins’ sends me in multiple directions before I even open the book, and then vital movement continues as I read. This is a book to treasure.
I can just about trace the birth of your fascination.
We were cordoned off from the fireplace with a moveable
copper façade. Nana was stitching one of Grandad’s
socks. We didn’t have any clothes on,
were still dripping slightly from the bath.
You picked up a pinch of metal
and in the dim light tried to see what it was
you were holding. I continued reading Beatrix Potter
with a damp index finger. Nana told you to be careful:
What you have in your hand is very sharp.
Caution: where there is a pin
there will be puns.
One must love a sister in the same way one must love
jabbing oneself in the foot halfway up a flight of carpeted stairs.
Our parents told you I would be a nice surprise.
Paula What were the first poetry books that mattered to you?
Natalie Not a whole book really, but I remember my mum reading us ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and being really taken with it. Gotta love the drama.
Then in high school ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot really resonated with me for some reason, and I still get parts of it stuck in my head. A few memorable books a bit later on were Kate Camp’s The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls (I always think of the owls on the cover) and a collection of W.S. Merwin’s, both of which I became attached to and didn’t want to return to the library. But don’t worry, I did.
Paula What poetry books are catching your attention now?
Natalie Freya Daly Sadgrove’s Head Girl was super kick-ass. I adored Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s Because a Woman’s Heart if Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean, particularly the epistolary sequence. I’m very in awe of Gregory O’Brien at the moment – something just snaps into place. Also looking forward to reading Second Person by Rata Gordon. I’m a hopeless sucker for a good cover and I had a peep at the first few pages the other day…intrigued!
Drop one pin into a glass of clear
cold water for several minutes.
Then immerse your hand in the language
of the water until you find it.
Paula Your debut collection is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. What do you hope from a poem or a book-length sequence such as this?
Natalie Thank you! Mostly I hope it behaves itself. Or that I can keep it in line with the shape of itself, being so long and fragmented. It’s nice when the pieces start interacting with each other and when they move through moods/sounds/scenes.
Paula Does this change for you as reader? What attracts you in poems by others?
Natalie I’m attracted to the usual things; the sounds a poem creates, the voice(s) it uses and the way the words fall together. But I love love love it when the poem is also kinda mischievously fun and cracks that sly-sideways smile at you. Quirky also does it for me, and a bit of classic sass.
Paula Your book does just that! Wit is a vital ingredient. James Brown likened Pins to Anne Kennedy’s 100 Traditional Smiles, and I see the connections. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. Narrative is such a fertile option for the poet. What drew you to it?
Natalie I’m not sure exactly. A bit to do with what I was reading at the time? I was also lucky to be surrounded by such beautiful narrative-making from my classmates that year, it was relatively contagious.
Paula Would you ever want to write a novel?
Natalie So tempted to go for the pun… Well, that would be pretty cool. People who are able to sustain a whole novel have my absolute admiration. It would take a gazillion years though; I’m fairly distractable, which is why I think Pins is so bitsy.
Paula I love the degree of white space in the collection – resonant for me on so many levels. It is both a visual and aural pause, a silent beat for eye and ear, a place to savour what you have just read. It also acknowledges the missing sister. Can you comment on the white space?
Natalie That’s a really awesome way of looking at it. For sure, I think the in-between spaces echo the little gaps the missing sister leaves in the narrative.
With poetry in general, I enjoy the blanks that we draw tiny conclusions about. It’s like staring at old floral wallpaper – you start to see all sorts of faces and figures.
But I will always have you in the back of my mind,
unwinding like the coil pin in the body of a bright,
jittery, copper toy.
Paula Staring at anything! I also love the way the missing sister is the family hub, but you don’t explain and you don’t resolve. Although I do feel like I am moving through fictions – what is true? – as though I am playing with a set of Russian dolls. If I had written this, I would want to leave it in the hands of the reader. No explanations. Do you agree?
Natalie Sort of? I would say there needed to be just enough to nudge the narrative along, but I’m not into overloading a piece with the whys and wherefores either. Especially this piece; it felt right for there to be spaces left. For me personally, the poem orbits around the longing created by the little absences. Maybe a part of longing is piecing together what we can from hints, and hints of hints? That’s how it is in my mind anyway – but yes, very onboard with leaving some of the work with the reader. Partly because I really enjoy the hugely varying assumptions people make about it, or is that too wicked of me? I’ve confounded at least one uncle….whoops!
walking into a downpour of a thousand brisk pins.
Paula I agree – the poetry is a lace-like arrival of longing around the white space – actual and implied. So much to adore about the book – especially the pivotal presence of pins. You catch them in so many surprising ways. I love nana and the sunsets, the barcode pin, acupuncture and voodoo, the downpour. Do you have a few favourites?
Natalie Thanks so much, Paula. Trying to dredge for ‘pins’ around the place morphed into an obsession in itself. I still have pin-themed dreams which is pretty ouch!
As to favourites, hmmm… the futuristic surgical pin for the brain, the bobby pin trail, the pin-filled swimming pool and the pigeons are probably my faves. The pin sonnet was quite satisfying too.
Because of your early attachment with fairy stories,
I wasn’t surprised to pick up your trail of bobby pins
along the footpaths of Wellington’s suburbs. I imagined
finally arriving at your gingerbread destination.
Paula I was filled with joy as I read this book, so it felt like you filled with joy as you wrote it. But that might be far from the truth of writing it. Was it joyful? Did you struggle and were plagued with doubt?
Natalie Yay, I love that it’s had that effect on you reading it.
All of the above! Plagued by doubt is definitely my resting state in most of what I do, and I’m probably not alone there? It was certainly joyous at times, especially when something falls into place – that’s quite exhilarating.
If all the pins in the world were gathered together
you would be very much pleased.
But all the pins in the world
cannot be gathered
Paula My Wild Honey research exposed a catalogue of doubt – my doubts in my ability to create the book but, more importantly, across a century of woman writing and doubting and finding their way into a public spotlight. Some women were kneecapped and roadblocked by the attitudes of the men in charge to their work.
Has Covid 19 affected you as either reader or writer? Did you write any poems in lockdown?
Natalie I don’t think any of us get away without being affected by Covid 19 and everything that’s happening right now. I imagine it having all sorts of impacts on writing and art-making that we might only notice after the fact maybe? When we were in lockdown, I finished up reading a few of the books I had started and then it was quite nice to return to some old comforting favourites around the flat. I didn’t write as much as I had hoped. It seemed like everyone had lofty goals for their lockdown which didn’t necessarily get realised. My grandma says ‘you can only do what you can do.’
Paula Wise grandmothers! What do you like to do apart from writing?
Natalie Anything to do with making odds and ends. At the moment, I’m knitting like a fiend in a race to finish a sleep sack for my nephew before he gets too big. I have a bad habit of thinking of new projects before the old ones are finished, ah! Overall, it’s a comforting thing to do.
When the stars align, I really love going tramping with friends, usually in the Tararua ranges. It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but it’s really special to me.
A grandson takes a stone
from a southern Pacific coast
carries it in his wallet
across the world
to place on a grave
His fingers feel for distant music
above this limestone pit
this morbid formation
Wearing a borrowed yarmulke
his hand sweeps the soil
his head is full of old notes
the blood maps of history
We are no relation
but every relation
here amongst this baby bowl
pelvis, these anonymous thigh bones
removed of salt, more beach wood
than bone, these splinters and knuckles of pumice
you might find floating at the sea’s edge
this scattered ancestry
Bone is what bone is
a composition of elements
like air, like music
but once we were naked
and I was a wife who lost her memory
Maybe you are my grandson
but I forget
Beside me a man
who clutched a satchel
of Stravinsky and Debussy
to cover his nakedness
A musician like you
that was his transport
clutched to his lungs
that was his oxygen
Hear our chorus
our bony percussion
our grandson, our grandson’s sons
hear us claim his future
and our escape
Do not be caught unarmed
bring your film, your press, your theatre
your manuscript, your piano, your pencils
bring your keepsake gift, your promise
bring your stone
Michele Amas from Walking Home, Victoria University Press, 2020
Michele Amas (1961 – 2016) was a poet and actor. In 2005 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at IIML and was awarded the Adam Prize. Her debut collection After the Dance appeared the following year and was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award. Ken Duncum has edited a posthumous collection, Walking Home selecting poems from across the decade, including the final poem she wrote.
Paula: I am completely in the grip of this poem. Phrases roll about in my head – it is in debt to the private circumstances of the poet, but it is snug in this world-wobbly moment. The poem resembles a fable designed to keep both writer and reader going. It is song and it is anchor and it is ache. It is family. I am thinking – in these uncertain and unsettling days – of pinning the the final stanza to my wall, maybe my heart, because there is so much we can bring and create and connect with. It’s strange, but this poem both fills me with joy and makes me cry. Read the book – it is breathtakingly good.