Five Blogs I Like. Chapter 2: The Bloggening

Just over a month ago, I started an occasional series of blog posts under the heading “Five Blogs I Like”. Now it’s time for another instalment.

Janis Freegard’s Weblog: Janis blogs about matters that generally relate to her very fine poetry and fiction. A recent article about Poetry and Gender in New Zealand Publishing was especially interesting.

Incidentally, Janis is the guest reader at the next Poetry Café in Wellington, on Sunday 21 March: 4pm – 6pm, Ballroom Cafe, cnr Adelaide Rd and Riddiford St, Newtown. It’s great that Poetry Café has restarted in Wellington, and though I couldn’t make the first session, I’m hoping to attend this one.

Joanna Preston: A Dark, Feathered Art: Joanna’s poetry collection The Summer King won the 2008 Kathleen Grattan Award, and I interviewed her in 2009. Joanna’s blog is frequently provocative. She says what she really thinks – a valuable service to other, more timid souls!

Harvey McQueen: Stoatspring: Harvey is a poet and educationalist whose blog, frequently updated, ranges across Harvey’s long involvement in matters poetical, educational and political. I’m looking forward to the imminent release of Harvey’s new collection, Goya Rules.

Jack Ross: The Imaginary Museum: Jack is a polymath: a poet, fiction writer, critic and academic with a head full of fascinating and provocative thoughts. His blog posts are mini-essays which range freely across the cultural landscape.

Reading The Maps: Like Jack Ross’s blog in breadth of content, but different in tone, Reading the Maps is the work of a trio of bloggers who look at a range of cultural and political issues from a (mostly) non-dogmatic Marxist perspective. Always well-argued, often well-illustrated, and well worth reading.

So far, all the blogs I’ve highlighted have been from New Zealand. Next time, I’ll speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing to foreign parts to investigate five examples of the bloggy goodness to be found there. And that wins the prize for most mangled metaphor hands down.

An Interview with Joanna Preston

Joanna Preston’s first solo poetry collection, The Summer King: Poems, has just been published by Otago University Press. The manuscript won the 2008 Kathleen Grattan Award.

Joanna Preston was born in Sydney and spent her childhood in outback New South Wales. In 1994, she migrated to New Zealand, although from 2003 to 2006 she lived in the UK, where she gained an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan. Her poems have been widely published, and won awards, in New Zealand and internationally. She has had work published in The Best Australian Poems 2005, edited by Les Murray, and in the prestigious 2007 Carcanet anthology New Poetries IV, edited by Eleanor Crawforth.

Joanna, The Summer King was launched on Montana Poetry Day, 24 July. How did the launch go?

It was a great night – the weather that day was horrible, but cleared up just in time. We had a full house, and the atmosphere was really buzzing. A real party feeling.

I am very impressed by the production quality of The Summer King – it’s a credit to the designer, Sarah Maxey, and to the publishers, Otago University Press. Are the physical qualities of a book important to you, or are you a person for whom it’s mainly about the words?

The words, every time. If the book is rubbish, then no amount of gorgeous presentation will save it. But … it’s a bit like the question from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “Don’t you know that a boy being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”

There are some books that you just can’t help picking up. You hope that the cover design will make people want to look at the book, and that the contents will make them want to keep it. I think Sarah and Wendy have delivered exactly that, and I am so incredibly grateful to them.

In her preview of The Summer King on Beattie’s Book Blog, Helen Lowe described you as a narrative poet. ‘Narrative poetry’ makes me think of Sir Patrick Spens and the Border Ballads. Do you think of yourself as a narrative poet, and if so, in what sense? How is that manifested in the collection?

I grew up with the Australian poetic narrative tradition, so I’ve got those sorts of inclinations fairly deeply ingrained. As much as anything, I call myself a narrative poet because I’m not really a lyric poet. There’s almost always a story behind the poem. It’s most obvious in persona poems like “Lighthouse-keeper”, but it’s there in most of them. I guess it comes down to how you define “narrative” and “lyric” poetry, and it may be that the distinction is no longer useful.

You are a poetry reviewer yourself. Does that make you more, or less, or not at all nervous about the critical reception The Summer King may receive?

Tim, I’m absolutely terrified. I am a complete and utter coward. Of course I want everyone to love the book, but I know that there will be plenty of people who don’t.

My intention is to try to not read the reviews. If there’s something that needs to be addressed, I’m sure I’ll be told and will try to address it. But ultimately the reviews have nothing to do with me. You don’t review a book for the author – you do it for other readers.

(That sounds impressively adult, doesn’t it? I suspect the truth will involve a lot more cringing, but we’ll see.)

You lived in the UK for three years, where you completed a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan. Do you still have a strong connection to the poetry scene in the UK in general, and to your tutors and peers at the University of Glamorgan in particular?

Once a Glam Girl, always a Glam Girl! There’s a private mailing list for alumni, so we all keep in touch and up to date with each other’s successes. It’s a fantastic resource – no matter what the literary question, one or other of us will have an answer. We actually form a surprisingly extensive international network. It’s a little bit skewed by the fact that I was the only survivor of my cohort …

“The only survivor of my cohort” sounds distinctly ominous. Please explain!

Well that’s a slight exaggeration. Two of us (out of eight) made it to the final residency, but so far I’m the only one to have gone through submission and viva. I think Barbara is planning to submit everything in the next few months, so I’ll be sitting on the (virtual) sidelines cheering for her when viva time comes.

The course is pretty highly thought of, and they fill the eight places a good six to eight months in advance. There’s usually two or three who drop out over the course of the two years (putting your life on hold for a one year full time course is one thing: much harder to juggle the same amount of work over a two year period while trying to maintain a normal life), but we ended up losing everyone except the two of us. Nothing sinister, just life getting in the way. Job promotions; illness; personal upheavals.

We started second year with three people deferring for another twelve months, and ended up with only two of us there for the last two residencies. It made for the most intense critical focus I’ve ever experienced – terrifying, exhausting, and quite exhilarating by the end. I think it ended up being about an hour and a half per session, just on one person’s poems. Then it’d be the other person’s turn. Then a change in the tutors, repeat, repeat again, and come back tomorrow to do the same again. Two residencies in a row! I don’t know how we survived it.

From what you’ve written on your blog, and from reading The Summer King itself, I’ve formed the impression that the craft of poetry is very important to you: that is, that a concern for the technical aspects of poetry is very strong in both your own work and your reaction to other poets’ work. Is that a fair assessment?

Absolutely. I’m a formalist by inclination, and that was only strengthened by my time in the UK. Welsh poetry in particular is incredibly musical. (And much loved by ordinary people – surely not a coincidence?) It’s not ornamentation: it’s an integral part of poetry. There are too many tin-eared poets. The Irish poet, Michael Longley, summed it up beautifully: “if many of the folk who call themselves poets were tightrope walkers, they would be dead.” Without craft, what do you have? Chopped up prose? Meaning is important, but it’s at least 50% in the hands (mind, rather) of the reader. Craft is the poet’s business.

Where’s the line between “poetry” and “chopped up prose”, and how do you determine what side of the line a particular piece of writing falls?

Good question! I’m sure there will be plenty of disagreement, but for me it comes down to music. If there’s no music, no rhythm, if the linebreaks don’t seem to be doing anything other than acting as airbags against the right hand margin … that’s prose, surely? The music doesn’t have to be pretty – it can jangle and be ugly, as long as it’s doing that for some sort of reason. I tell my students that poetry is, above all else, patterned language. There’s plenty of grey areas on the margins, and that’s what margins are for – to be the zone of “still awaiting classification”, or “other/pending review” or “mixed source, parentage uncertain”. Craft, craft, technique and craft.

But as I said, that’s my personal view. Not universally held, and subject to revision on a case-by-case basis.

Which poets have been most influential on your own work, and which poets do you most enjoy reading?

Oo, a long list, and it varies wildly. I’d have to start with Shakespeare, Donne, Coleridge, some Wordsworth. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti. Lorca I fell in love with when I was little, and he still makes me tingle. Of recent years – Kate Llewellyn, Geoffrey Lehmann, Les Murray (of course), Hughes and Heaney (ditto), Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Selima Hill, Pascale Petit, Louise Glück, Carolyn Forché, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Li-Young Lee … if I add the NZ contingent we’ll be here all night.

Influences – Les Murray and Ted Hughes are fairly obvious. (I was given a copy of Lupercal when I was ten or eleven, and I still find his shamanistic poems utterly compelling.) And I’m trying to absorb some of the wildness of Pascale Petit’s work – she’s an criminally underrated poet. I can spend hours pouring over her poems, trying to see what makes them tick and how I can use that myself. Same with Louise Glück. And I have to work hard to not pick up Duffy-isms if I’ve been reading her.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

Trying to get back into the flow of writing properly! One of the downsides from the MPhil was that I burnt myself out a bit, getting everything completed and ready to hand in before we left the UK. It’s a little over three years since I finished, and I’ve really only written a handful of decent poems since then. It’s taken me quite a while to come to terms with that. But I’ve started to feel them again.

Finally, my favourite poem of the many fine poems in The Summer King is “Phlogiston”, and you’ve been kind enough to let me reproduce it below. I’m not going to ask you “what it’s about”, because its air of mystery is one of the things I like best about it. But I’m interested in the way its two-line stanzas (and single one-line stanza) work together. How do you decide the length of stanza to use for each poem you write?

You break lines for all sorts of reasons to do with rhythm and pattern and sound and emphasis, but a stanza break is a bigger thing. The best explanation I’ve come across is something that Stephen Knight worked hard to drum into my skull: there should be some sort of payoff to reward the reader for trusting you and crossing that white space into a new stanza. It sounds extreme, but it’s a good mental check. Maybe it’s a rhythm choice; maybe you’re following the logic of new thought: new paragraph. And those reasons work well. But … I like the idea of “little dramatic moments” (another Stephen Knight-ism – he was a very good tutor!), of the poem being like riding a cross-country jumping course – logs and fences and ditches, and the need to position the reader so that the flow through the poem is as true and exhilarating as possible. It’s not a bad aim to start with.


by Joanna Preston

It glowered from its box
growling and hissing,

a beautiful thing, caged
behind a brass screen.

I hugged myself, stared
back at it for hours,

its scent draped
around me like fox-furs.

was just a word

until it escaped one night
and the neighbours came home

to nothing.

The calcined skull
of their yap-dog

crunched under my heel
like frozen grass.

“Phlogiston” was first published in Magma 35.

Voyagers, Vogels and Montanas, Oh My!


Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand
is getting good exposure in the Dominion Post this week. Louis Johnson’s poem from the anthology, “Love Among the Daleks” was the Wednesday Poem in the DomPost, and in Saturday’s Indulgence section, there will be a short piece about the book written by Tom Cardy, whom I completely deny knowing since we were callow youths in Dunedin.

It bears repeating: You can buy Voyagers from as a paperback or Kindle e-book; New Zealand Books Abroad; or Fishpond. You can also find out more about Voyagers, and buy it directly from the publisher, at the Voyagers mini-site.

Bookshop distribution is taking longer to arrange – as an aside, one reason that Australian literature has a surprisingly low profile in New Zealand is that New Zealand bookshops seem reluctant to deal with Australian distributors – but books are trickling in here: at least, I know that Parsons in Lambton Quay, Wellington has a copy! But you may find that an online option is your best bet to buy the book at the moment.

UPDATE: There will be 5 copies in Unity Books, Wellington, from Friday 19 June.

The Sir Julius Vogel Awards 2009

It is long past time that I congratulated the winners in the 2009 Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Sadly for me, I wasn’t one of them; my cunning plan of competing against myself (with Transported and JAAM 26) allowed that up-and-coming author Elizabeth Knox to burst through the middle in the Best Collected Work category.

But my congratulations go to all the winners, and especially to Helen Lowe, who took out both Best Novel – Young Adult and Best New Talent, and Grant Stone, who won Best Short Story.

This Year’s Montana Book Awards Controversy

It wouldn’t be the Montana Book Awards without a controversy. Last year, the big fuss was over the judges for the Best Novel awards restricting the field to four candidates rather than the allowable five.

This year, Graham “Bookman” Beattie has criticised the elitism of the Best Novel shortlist, while Joanna Preston has noted that Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press have been the only publishers with works on the shortlist in the past two years, though other publishers have been represented there in the past.

One possible reason for the limited representation of poetry publishers is that, from the perspective of a small press publisher’s (or poet’s) budget, it is very expensive to enter these awards. To quote from the rules at

9. An entry fee of NZ$100 (including GST)
will be charged for each submission. A fee of
NZ$150 (including GST) will be charged for
publishers who are not members of Booksellers
New Zealand.

For books with a print run of fewer than 1,000
copies an entry fee of NZ$85 (including GST) will
be charged. A fee of NZ$125 (including GST) will
apply in this instance to publishers who are not
members of Booksellers New Zealand.

(In addition, publishers have to supply five copies of each book entered.)

To punt this amount of money, a small press publisher or author has to be confident that the book in question has a good chance of winning – and, given the dominance of the university presses (in particular VUP and AUP) in this category, not many small press publishers or authors would have this confidence. Thus, the more AUP and VUP win, the less competition they will have in future – and, though the finalists are certainly worthy of that honour, I think it would be good to spread the net wider.

If you agree, or if there’s some other aspect of the awards that needs improving, you have a chance to do something about it. To quote another blog post by Joanna Preston:

Addendum: this year is the last year under Montana’s sponsorship, and so Booksellers New Zealand are reviewing the awards, and are calling for public submissions.

Submissions should be emailed to:
AwardsReview (at),
or mailed to Booksellers New Zealand, PO Box 13248, Johnsonville, Wellington 6440
by 1 July 2009.

Submissions will be listed online at, by name and date, from Wednesday 10 June. They will be available to download in full, in pdf format.

Reading Poetry at Madras Cafe Books in Christchurch (feat. North)

Last night, I was a guest reader, together with Fiona Farrell and Victoria Broome, at the first weekly session of the Canterbury Poets’ Collective Autumn Readings Series at Madras Cafe Books in Christchurch.

I had a terrible cold, but a good time. I was going to post a full and judicious report, but I discovered tonight that Catherine of Still Standing on her Head had got there before me, so I am going to recommend that you read her excellent report. I’ll just throw in a few additional comments:

  • I liked the venue. Madras Cafe Books does what it says on the label: There’s a cafe, with seating inside and out, and behind the cafe, a bookstore. The food at the cafe was delicious (I was very bad and had a mocha slice), and although the bookshop isn’t large, it has a good selection of interesting books from both New Zealand and overseas. Definitely recommended.
  • I was impressed by what I saw of the Canterbury poetry community (I’m not sure how many people came from out of town). There was a very good turnout, people were certainly friendly to me and seemed friendly to each other, and the standard of the poems read at the open mike part of the evening was high; there were many contenders for the prize for best poem from this section, won by Joanna Preston. It was great to meet poets I only knew by name or reputation, such as John O’Connor and James Norcliffe, as well as those I had met before – and I was especially pleased to be able to thank Fiona Farrell for including my story “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev” in Best New Zealand Fiction 4.
  • It isn’t easy to read poetry to an audience when you have a sore throat. I was surprised my voice held out; I guess adrenalin got me through. Hardest of all the poems to read was “North”, from my first collection, Boat People. I do the Yorkshire-y bits in a variety of Yorkshire accents, and it isn’t easy trying to sound like the Clitheroe Kid when your voice is threatening to give way. Maybe I’ll put up an audio file one day, but in the meantime, here is North, inspired by my visit back to the land and accents of my birth in 1989 – with apologies to Harvey Molloy, who has had to put up with my lame renditions of accents not entirely dissimilar to his when he’s heard me read this poem.


On Ilkley Moor
I parked me red
Ford Laser hatchback
and gazed to the north.
Rain and smoke stood over Wharfedale.

It was all in its appointed place:
stone houses and stone smiles in Ilkley
the wind on the bleak
insalubrious bracken.

I was waiting for memory
to make the scene complete:
some flat-vowelled voice out of childhood
snatches of Northern song.

For memory read TV:
Tha’ve broken tha poor Mother’s heart
It were only a bit of fun.
Bowl slower and hit bloody stumps.

Tha’ll never amount to much, lad. In cloth cap and gaiters,
car forgotten, I pedal down the hill. Hurry oop
or tha’ll be late for mill. Folk say
I’ve been seeing the young widow Cleghorn.
Well, now, fancy that.

In my invented character
I trail my falsified heritage
down the long, consoling streets.

A Number of Things

The world is so full of a number of things
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings
(Robert Louis Stevenson, “Happy Thought”, in A Child’s Garden of Verses)

Climate Action Festival

I’m less than happy about the incoming New Zealand Government’s views on climate change. It took a great deal of time and effort to get the previous Labour government to take action – weak, partial action, but action nevertheless – designed to reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. The recently-elected National-led government seems not only willing but eager to sacrifice these modest gains on the altar of its coalition agreement with hard-right climate change denial party ACT.

An early chance for Wellington people to get a message to the Government about the need to take meaningful action on climate change is the Climate Action Festival on at Waitangi Park this coming Saturday, 6 December, from 11am-4pm. I’m going to spend a couple of hours on the Climate Defence Network stall. The organisers have some interesting things planned – it should be a good day!

Congratulations to Joanna Preston

The big New Zealand poetry news of the last week or so is that Joanna Preston has won the inaugural Kathleen Grattan Prize for an unpublished poetry collection. Her collection “The Summer King” will be published in 2009, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Sir Julius Vogel Awards 2009

The Sir Julius Vogel Awards are New Zealand’s equivalent of the Hugo Awards. They recognise excellence in a number of fields related to science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Nominations for the Vogels are now open and close on 28 February 2009. You can find details of the categories and how to nominate on the SFFANZ site, and also lists of works that could be nominated (these depend on self-reporting, so may not be comprehensive, but look for those with a 2008 date). Before Christmas, I plan to put up a post looking at possible contenders in more detail, but in the meantime I suggest “for your consideration” (as they say in Hollywood) Transported and some of the individual stories in it, JAAM 26 and some of the individual speculative fiction stories in it, and Helen Lowe’s Thornspell.

broadsheet 2

Mark Pirie has produced the second issue of his poetry journal broadsheet. This issue is a tribute to Wellington poet Louis Johnson on the 20th anniversary of his death, and features poetry by many of his contemporaries, as well as newer writers: the full lineup is Peter Bland, Richard Berengarten, Marilyn Duckworth, Kevin Ireland, Louis Johnson, Miranda Johnson, Harvey McQueen, Vincent O’Sullivan, Alistair Paterson, Helen Rickerby, Harry Ricketts, Martyn Sanderson, Peter Shadbolt, Nelson Wattie, and F W N Wright.

That lineup alone tells you that the issue will be well worth reading; for some more reasons why you should get hold of broadsheet 2, see Harvey Molloy’s review.

Missing the Point?

Jennifer van Beynen has reviewed Transported in the Lumiere Review. She wasn’t very keen on the collection as a whole, although she did have some good things to say about individual stories.

Reviewers are fully entitled to their opinions, whether good or bad, but it’s helpful when a reviewer is familiar with the genre(s) of a work and the nature of the stories under review. A couple of Jennifer’s comments suggest to me that this wasn’t the case. She says “I found Transported at times to be baffling and frustrating. This may be because of the heavy science fiction content (I’m not a fan), but that’s just my personal preference” and also, in reviewing “Cold Storage”, says:

Often there is scant detail or emotional reaction in these stories; things happen and the story carries on, with little emotional payoff. I found the fantasy stories particularly alienating. In ‘Cold Storage’, for example, the main character has little response to life-threatening and bizarre events other than an annoying arrogance, even when faced with certain death in Antarctica.

One view of short stories is that they are (or should be) all about character, and the revelation of character; that they should incorporate a still, small moment which shows how the protagonist has changed or grown – an “emotional payoff”, in other words.

I agree that this is a very valid thing for a short story to do, and some of my favourite short story writers (such as Alice Munro) do exactly this in their stories, but I don’t agree that it’s the only thing a short story can do. There are stories in Transported that do hinge on the revelation of character; others in which the protagonist is no wiser at the end than the beginning; and others still in which character is secondary to other aspects of the story.

That’s the sorts of stories Transported contains. It’s very possible that the stories could have been better, but to write a review based on the desire that Transported should have contained other sorts of stories than it does contain seems to me to be missing the point.

The MA in Creative Writing: The Controversy Resumes

The Victoria University MA in Creative Writing is an object of desire (for those thinking of applying), hope (for those who have applied), envy, and controversy. It plays such a large part in the New Zealand literary scene, especially in Wellington, that it would be most surprising if this were not the case.

My own feelings about the MA (now joined by a PhD in Creative Writing) are mixed. For the record, I have neither taken, nor applied for, the MA. I have taken two undergraduate creative writing courses at Victoria: a Writing Short Fiction course taught by Robert Onopa in 2000, during which I wrote the first draft of “The Wadestown Shore”, one of the stories in Transported; and the Writing the Landscape course taught by Dinah Hawken, in 2003.

Both courses were valuable, but I have particularly fond memories of Writing the Landscape and of Dinah’s tutelage. About 1/3 of the poems in All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens were written for, or during, that course, and it sparked my most productive period as a poet. (I’m down to about three poems a year now!) So, on the basis of my own experience, I have no reason to think that the MA, being longer, wouldn’t be even better.

The two complaints most commonly made about the Victoria MA (and creative writing MA/MFA programmes in general) is that they lead to work that is written for an audience of one — the assessor — or several — the classmates; and that the products of the course are too homogeneous. The second, if true, may well be an outcome of the first.

I’m aware that many fine books (such as Mary McCallum’s The Blue and Johanna Aitchison’s A Long Girl Ago) have come out of the Victoria MA. In my experience, the books produced are surprisingly diverse. So I’m not too bothered about those issues.

My concern is more about the market power of the Victoria MA and other such courses. Quite apart from the benefits to the participants’ writing, there appears to be a clear commercial benefit to graduating from the Victoria MA. Graduates’ work is more likely to be published in such literary journals as Sport, more likely to be published in book form, more likely to attract Creative New Zealand funding, and more likely to gain literary awards.

Viewed one way, that’s a fair reward from the amount of effort and stress people have to go through to to be accepted for the course, let alone complete it; but from my viewpoint, in such a small literary market as New Zealand, the Victoria MA exerts an undue dominance. The published books of MA graduates are, in my experience, never poor, and often excellent; but what other voices might be heard, what other books might be published and promoted, if the MA did not loom so large?

These musings were sparked off by this post by Joanna Preston on the vexed subject of creative writing courses (and here’s a contrasting viewpoint about the role of the workshop instructor). What do you think? Is the Victoria MA in Creative Writing good, bad, or indifferent for New Zealand writers and New Zealand literature?