Two New Books: “Upturned” by Kay McKenzie Cooke and “I Wish, I Wish” by Zirk Van Den Berg

I’ve been catching up with my reading over the holidays – here are two new books worth your attention, both published by The Cuba Press.

Upturned is a new poetry collection by one of my favourite poets. I Wish, I Wish is the second volume in the Cuba Press Novella series – my climate fiction novella Where We Land was the first in this series.

Upturned by Kay McKenzie Cooke.

Kay McKenzie Cooke is one of my favourite poets. Her poetry connects with me on both levels that really matter to me: emotion and language. For me, there’s an extra level of connection in that Kay was born in Murihiku / Southland, where I grew up, and some of her poems feature places I know well and times I’ve experienced.

But even if you have no connection with Southland – or for that matter Berlin, where a section of this collection is set – these poems are likely to speak to anyone who enjoys beautiful, resonant writing that is strongly connected with land, people and memory.

These poems are both highly skilled and very welcoming – this is poetry that invites you in rather than fences you out. So even if you don’t usually read poetry, give Upturned a try. You won’t regret it.

Front cover of Upturned, a poetry collection by Kay McKenzie Cooke

I Wish, I Wish by Zirk Van Den Berg

As the title signifies, I Wish, I Wish is a fairy tale – but it’s a very down-to-earth one. Mortician Seb’s monotonous life is abruptly upturned after he meets a dying young boy called Gabe. At the start of the novella, Seb is thoroughly stuck in an unsatisfying life that’s going nowhere, and by the end … well, read it and find out.

This novella works because Zirk Van Den Berg steers away from sentiment while communicating the protagonist’s emotions effectively. This is a very well-written book, with neat touches of humour that offset what could otherwise be too moralistic a narrative. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start 2021 by reading another story about death, but before long I was caught up in this novella, and I think you will be too.

Front cover of I Wish, I Wish, a novella by Zirk Van Den Berg

Southern Writers at Te Awe Brandon Library – 20 Oct 2020

From the Wellington City Library blog:

Image shows books by poets taking part in the Southern Writers event
20 October 2020
Te Awe Library – 29 Brandon Street
12.30pm to 2pm

Join the Facebook event:

This event inaugurates the Te Awe event space, with six fine poets and prose writers giving a very special lunch time reading. All hail from Dunedin or Southland.

They are:

Kay McKenzie Cooke, Richard Langston, Tim Jones, Nick Ascroft, Madison Hamill and Jenny Powell, with Mary McCallum reading some of the late Elizabeth Brooke-Carr’s work.

So why not take this rare opportunity, grab your lunchtime sandwiches or buy one from the Te Awe café, and enliven your lunch listening to some of New Zealand’s finest poets reading from their works. Enjoy.

Hop across to the Wellington City Library blog for further details of the poets and their latest books!

Images of authors taking part in the Southern Writers events

Tuesday Poetry News: Eye To The Telescope 2 Published: Robots, Time Machines, Aliens, And Joe Dolce

This isn’t, in all conscience, a Tuesday Poem, but it does contain several Tuesday Poets: Issue 2 of Eye To the Telescope, which I edited, has now been published.

Eye To The Telescope is an online magazine recently established by the Science Fiction Poetry Association, and Issue 2 features speculative poetry (that is poetry, in the science fiction, fantasy, horror and associated genres) by Australian and New Zealand poets. The list of contents is:

Editor’s Introduction • Tim Jones
If this is the future … • Helen Rickerby
Born Inside Weather • Les Wicks
Another Wow! Signal • Stephen Oliver
then our mother flew unassisted • Raewyn Alexander
Before Science Stepped In • Rod Usher
Rapunzel • Mary Victoria
Bordertown • Grant Stone
A whimper after the bang • Emily Manger
Man in a wingsuit • Chris Lynch
Mechwarrior Sonnet • Toby Davidson
Radio Wave Propagation in the Roman Warm Period • Catherine Fitchett
Nocturne • Peter Friend
mind sings of mer • Sandi Sartorelli
Yayoi Kusama goes to Iceland • Janis Freegard
In the third poem I am being killed by a water lizard • Cy Mathews
Don’t Shoot the Robot • David Reiter
The Trouble With Time Machines • Alicia Ponder
Extermiknit • Laurice Gilbert
Dhiy uvenjing goest • Tom Clark
Aliens • Joe Dolce

and you can read the introduction, the poems and the contributor bios (which cover Issue 1 as well as Issue 2). You can also keep an eye out for the submission guidelines for future issues.

Here is the press release I sent out about this issue. I hope you enjoy these twenty poems!

Robots, Time Machines, Aliens, And Joe Dolce

When the Science Fiction Poetry Association asked New Zealand poet, author and anthologist Tim Jones to edit an issue of their online magazine “Eye To The Telescope” featuring Australian New Zealand speculative poetry, he didn’t expect to receive a submission from the singer-songwriter behind 1980s hit song “Shaddap You Face” – and he didn’t expect to like it enough to include it in the issue, now online at

“Shaddap You Face” was an Italian-themed novelty song that was absolutely inescapable in the early 1980s. ‘All I knew of Joe Dolce was that he wrote that one song,’ says Tim Jones. ‘What I didn’t know is that he’s also a fine poet, with work published in many of Australia’s leading literary journals. His poem “Aliens” makes a great concluding poem for this issue.’

Speculative poetry covers poetry that fits within the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, plus other associated genres like magic realism and surrealism. ‘It was really tough to choose only 20 poems from the much larger number of poems I’d like to have published,’ says Tim Jones, ‘but I’m happy to have included such a range of genres and styles.’

The first poem, Helen Rickerby’s “If this is the future….”, uses science fiction as a beautifully delicate metaphor, but there’s also such hard-out science fiction poems as Chris Lynch’s “Man in a wingsuit”. There is apocalyptic menace in Grant Stone’s “Bordertown” and Emily Manger’s “A whimper after the bang”, in contrast to the wry humour of Laurice Gilbert’s “Exterminiknit”.

‘One of the things I’m most pleased about is that this issue brings together well-regarded poets, like Janis Freegard, Stephen Oliver and David Reiter, with authors best known for their fiction, like Mary Victoria and Peter Friend, both of whom contributed poems on fantasy themes, and Spanish-domiciled Australian writer Rod Usher,’ Tim Jones commented. ‘There’s surrealism, a sonnet, and one dialect poem that reminds me of Russell Hoban’s great novel “Riddley Walker”.’

Whether you love poetry, you love SF, fantasy, and horror, or you just want to find out what on earth speculative poetry is, there is something for you in “Eye To The Telescope 2”.

Should New Zealand Have Its Own Section On The Poetry International Web?

I’ve been looking through this week’s Tuesday Poems, and thinking about poems – mine and others’ – I plan to post on forthcoming Tuesdays.

While doing this, I visited the Poetry International Web. Poetry International is a significant organisation: it organises the annual Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam, and it maintains a website with many poems, articles, videos and news.

The website is organised into national sections, each overseen by a national editor, each with its own wealth of material. Australia has a national section; so does Zimbabwe – a particularly impressive one – and Lithuania, and Croatia.

But there is no national section for Aotearoa/New Zealand, presumably because we don’t have a national editor. I think that’s a pity. So I’m wondering, would it be good if we did have a national section, and if so, how could this be brought about?

The Poetry International FAQ includes a list of the requirements for a national editor, and they are not insignificant. But is there anyone out there who meets those criteria and would be willing to take on the job?

Under Government and Restraint: An Interview With David Howard

UPDATE: An extended version of this interview will appear in the Journal of New Zealand Literature during the first quarter of 2010.

After serving as a pyrotechnics supervisor for acts such as Metallica and Janet Jackson, David Howard retired to Purakanui in order to write. His collaboration with photographer Fiona Pardington, How To Occupy Our Selves, was published in 2003. A draft of the opening poem “There You Go” featured in Best New Zealand Poems 2002; the full text was set for mezzosoprano, narrator and piano trio by the Czech composer Marta Jirackova. “The Harrier Suite” appeared in both Best New Zealand Poems 2004 and The Word Went Round (2006).

In 2007 David worked with Brina Jez-Brezavscek on a sound installation, The Flax Heckler, in northern Slovenia. On 18 September 2009 soprano Judith Dodsworth premiered Johanna Selleck’s setting of his lyric “Air, Water, Earth Meld” at Melba Hall in Melbourne; a recording is planned for release by Move Records later this year. David’s texts for composers are collected in the limited edition S(t)et (Gumtree Press). His poetry has been translated into German, Italian, Slovene and Spanish.

David, I hope I’m not being unfair when I say that your profile as a poet is comparatively low within New Zealand, despite your impressive track record. On the other hand, you have worked extensively with overseas artists. Is the international aspect of your collaborative work a matter of choice, necessity, or a little of both?

Profile, which is periodically if irregularly the consequence of talent, is determined by third parties who are immovable objects before the irresistible force of authorial ego. I prefer pyrotechnics and production management to talking about words; my modest profile reflects my immodest choices.

Choice is, in part, the acceptance of necessity. I can’t regret working with the All Blacks or touring with Metallica, so I can’t regret the invitations that never came to present my poems – nor can I deny that I’d have enjoyed such invitations. Am I saying that the book world is like a classroom where the noisiest pupil gets the most attention? Only on Black Fridays – although a talent for self-promotion naturally turns heads and gets bums on seats. There’s no conspiratorial mystery here. Despite my physical absence, I’ve enjoyed ten fifteen twenty years of respectful reviewing. It began with Kendrick Smithyman:

David Howard’s poems are accompanied by photographs from Paul Swadel. These are formidably sophisticated. They may make you doubt that you are intellectually up to them. The poems may have a similar effect at first, certainly a sense of shock, an uncommon astonishment at the extraordinary poise which is part and parcel of these usually quite short pieces. They are admirably judged, they last long enough to get their various effects but not longer. A certain authority matched with an appreciable intelligence, a body of information used with taste guides the reader into puzzling and on to delight, under government and restraint . . . Howard’s collection comes from 10 years, 1980-1990, his twenties. It should be exciting seeing what he produces in his 30s. (Auckland Sunday Star, 30 June 1991)

And it continues with the younger generation of Richard Reeve, Anna Livesey, Emma Neale and Kapka Kassabova:

David Howard is a mystery figure on our poetic landscape. Sparse in his output, virtually invisible to the media and involved for the last few years in staging entertainment shows around the world as a pyrotechnician, he belongs to an endangered species: the truly independent artist who remains quietly active throughout the years… In poems like ‘Care of the Commanding Officer’, ‘Cain’, ‘On the Eighth Day’, ‘Dove’, ‘To Cavafy’, to name but a few, the cerebral blends with the visceral with a brilliant lightness of touch. (New Zealand Listener, 2-8 Feb 2002)

So it’s valorizing crap to quote Hofmannsthal, ‘Die andern wollten mich daheim zu ihrem Spiel,/ Mich aber freut es so, fur mich allein zu sein.’ (‘The others wanted me to join them in their games,/ But to roam freely and alone is what I like.’) The latter is true but if I haven’t been invited to join then it’s partly due to my curiosity for exploring the byways of elsewhere.

Like everyone else, I need to work with people who are interested in what I do. After all, the faithless man discards himself. For me collaboration is a halfway house between the private ideal and public service. Perhaps it’s a corollary to the pastoral/urban tension, with genre rather than geography providing the frame.

Shebang, by David Howard, on Trout

Having happily collaborated with artists Paul Swadel, Jason Greig, Fiona Pardington, Kim Pieters and Garry Currin I wanted a more compressed, essential process so my interest shifted to music. Who? Anthony Ritchie has creditably set poets but I don’t like his music. I’d like to like it however, as philosopher Alan Musgrave points out, we don’t choose our likes or dislikes, nor do we choose our beliefs. So far I’ve worked with three composers: Marta Jirackova of the Czech Republic, Brina Jez-Brezavscek of Slovenia, and Johanna Selleck of Australia.

When most of my contemporaries (and potential listeners) are rocking backwards and forwards to variants of popular song, why am I attracted to the art song, oratorio and songspiel? The latest hit song gives us the liberty to be superficially involved but still enjoy; it is the artistic corollary of casual sex. A contemporary classical piece demands commitment before it surrenders its charms. Karlheinz Stockhausen, speaking about Stimmung, asserted: ‘One listens to the inner self of the sound, the inner self of the harmonic spectrum, the inner self of a vowel, the inner self.’ I hear that as a Kantian challenge to respect the autonomy of whatever and whoever. Each of my collaborators has the modesty of one who understands ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’ (Yeats). They care more for the material than for attention; otherwise why set a poet from New Zealand? Marta’s answer: ‘I see that it is a country of miracles.‘

Reading Richard Reeve’s 2002 interview with you in Deep South, I got a strong impression that you are largely out of sympathy with the current state of poetic practice in New Zealand – both with much of the poetry being produced by individual poets, and with the infrastructure by which poetry is published, reviewed, and brought to the attention of its potential audience. Is that fair comment, and have your views changed since 2002?

As the view has got darker (it must have, look at all those stars!) so have my views. But I’ve been lucky enough not to wake up a curmudgeon who is bruised by youthful failure. I still smile at the horizon as I sip coffee that is stronger than my attraction to the NASDAQ. When I arrive at my desk I find the draft of a literary quiz; it begins ‘Which top or leading New Zealand poet is the subject of these lines?’

Because his subsidy comes from the State
For teaching self-expression to the masses
In jails, nut-houses; worse, in grad-school classes
In which his sermon is (his poems show it)
That anyone can learn to be a poet.
With pen in hand he takes the poet’s stance
To write, instead of sonnets, sheaves of grants
Which touch the bureaucrats and move their hearts
To turn the spigot on and flood the arts
With cold cash, carbon copies, calculators,
And, for each poet, two administrators.
In brief, his every effort at creation
Is one more act of self-perpetuation
To raise the towering babble of his Reputation.

Small wonder that his subject matter’s taken
From the one sphere in which his faith’s unshaken
As, fearful of offending powers that be,
He turns his gaze within, exalts the Me,
And there, neither with wit nor with discretion,
Spews forth page after page of mock-confession
Slightly surreal, so private, so obscure
That critics classify his work as “pure”
Because, in digging through the endless chatter,
They can’t discern what is the subject matter,
And so, instead of saying they don’t get it,
They praise the “structure” they invent to fit it.
He has no fear, for when his work’s reviewed
Friends do it; thus, he’s never gotten screwed.
He’ll do the same for them, and they remain
Pals in the literary daisy-chain
Where every year, like Hallowe’en surprises,
They pass each other fellowships and prizes,
Include each other in anthologies
And take their greedy cuts from poetry’s moldy cheese.

You’re wrong, it’s not Bill Manhire. But your inference makes my point. I hear you clear your throat. Of course the question was unfair – a low blow intended to double up the reader, albeit with laughter. That excerpt is from The Narcissiad (Cedar Rock Press, 1981) by the American satirist R.S. Gwynn so the situation described is typical rather than particular. Typical of what? An institutionalised poetry scene such as has developed here over the last three decades.

When Richard Reeve interviewed me after my return to the mainland I affirmed that the first responsibility of an institution is to export its values, its valuations, in order to extend its longevity and therefore make more money. The imperative is economic rather than poetic. This means that statements by the representatives of institutions should be viewed as propaganda regardless of their truth quotient. In other words, whether the statements are true or not, their primary purpose is to impress rather than inform. The IIML is infamous for referring to itself as famous; the frequency of repetition is Orwellian yet commercially irreproachable.

Institutional or not, we do seem desperate to puff up our chests and strut like roosters across a painfully small backyard. Even the finest suffer. When Andrew Johnston asserts that Manhire is ‘our best poet’ then I hear Johnston’s ambition rather than Manhire’s achievement, which is (brilliantly) derivative and acknowledged as such by him. Curnow’s polished poems appear to have been written primarily so they (and their author) could be admired, while Baxter insists on repeating stage directions out loud. Karl Stead (institution and iconoclast in one) is the world authority on C.K. Stead; we learn this by reading any recent essay by him irrespective of its stated topic. In an age when reviewers crib press releases, assertion of will is a determinant of reputation (it was Dan Davin who mentioned ‘the plasticine of truth’) but evangelical self-regard is rather different to the verdict(s) of history.

Look back a century – what most people believed then is not what their descendents believe now. Future generations will have a plurality of responses to today’s poetry, responses that will negotiate the leverage of today’s institutions and discard authorial special pleading. Who knows what will settle where and for how long? Our superior collections have had mixed fates: Michele Leggott’s Dia deservedly won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, whereas Graham Lindsay’s stringent The Subject was sidelined. Both books were published by Auckland University Press in 1994 so imprint, release date, publicity and distribution were comparable and therefore neutral factors. Admittedly, as a Christchurch resident, Lindsay was disadvantaged – and this despite the presence of literary historian Mark Williams who, like a colonial functionary, looked to the main chance of Wellington.

Tim, since you speak Russian, here’s an instance where the main chance was a missed chance. This example avoids the prickly pear of reputation; instead it squeezes the lemon of ignorance. Had Williams put down Sport long enough to browse the Christchurch journal Takahe, which I co-founded in 1989, then he could have read the editorial of Takahe 3 (Autumn 1990) by Tatyana Shcherbina and R.V. Smirnow. “The New Zealand Project”, an open letter sponsored by 42 Russian signatories, called for an autonomous laboratory of new artists, asserting:

The geographical place where this autonomous laboratory will meet the new age, and perhaps be realised in its integrity, we call New Zealand. This is a land out of fairy-tales, belonging to the Queen of Great Britain and to God in equal measure, islands at the «end of the world» which, compared with the rest of the world, are governed with more ecological sensitivity, which have preserved a culture and a political purity that quite miraculously turn out to be parallel, new and independent in relation to the rest of the world. So it is to this country that we would like to present our computer-bucolic project of a community of free people.

Williams could have looked through Curtainless Windows: Contemporary Russian Writing (Takahe 5, Spring 1990), discovering poems from Mikhail Aizenberg, Tatyana Shcherbina, Alexandra Sozonova, Ludmila Stokowska, and Sergey Stratanovsky – all translated by J. Kates, whose Zepyhr Press published The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova (1990). He would have learnt that the Cyrillic alphabet abbreviates ’emergency ration’ to ‘N.Z.’, but for Shcherbina

N.Z. is now only New Zealand.
Once it made me think of emergency rations,
I mean, a touch of the commie state – not its ill-wishers
but its orphans (that obscene look never wears thin)
a touch ever more unfeeling, without strands of wool
on its pelt, nor birthmarks.
You can love a hag’s eyes and touch eyelids
where the eyelashes have fallen out, white and iris –
shot off into space at an enemy.
Only a single husk left over, a foil
with the superficial depth of a hologram.
You can scrutinize it, and wait until it revives,
skewer it on a Finnish knife –
the way spectators got into silent movies,
now that N.Z. is an antique canvas.

In America this material was commended by the likes of Marilyn Hacker, who wrote of Mikhail Aizenberg: ‘American readers are introduced to the work of an important contemporary Russian poet, whose world-view and aesthetic will seem at once welcome in its otherness and pertinently familiar… In J. Kates’ translations, these poems have a new and discrete life in English.’ But not a life our scholars share – there’s no acknowledgement in either Mark Williams’ introduction or Gregory O’Brien’s preface to Land of Seas: An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry (with E. Pavlov, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2005).

Perhaps this is forgiveable; their task was to showcase New Zealand poets to Russian readers, not to catalogue contacts. But Landfall 213: Russia (OUP, 2007) shows that a history missed is a history rewritten. What are we to make of the failure by Jacob Edmond, Gregory O’Brien, Evgeny Pavlov and Ian Wedde to recognise a direct precursor, “The New Zealand Project”? They are scholars not enthusiasts rapping in a back yard as the barbecue spits. How can an essay entitled “No Place like Home: Encounters between New Zealand and Russian Poetries” fail to cite (to sight) the Kates’ translations, which also appeared in Takahe 15 (Winter 1993), especially when Edmond discusses the samizdat issue (Leningrad, 1989) of the open letter? [To be fair, when I directed his attention to this he was enthusiastic and apologetic.]

It’s simple. When there’s a lot of noise from one direction then heads naturally turn that way. Scholars of contemporary poetry look to Wellington with good reason. The obligation is not on the IIML/VUP/Sport nexus to quieten down, but on scholars to explore elsewhere before drawing conclusions. Too often when they turn their backs on the capital it’s to use a Claude glass. Rita Angus’ absurdist quip from 1947: ‘New Zealand is, in essence, medieval’ could be whimsically applied today, with Bill Manhire our urbane Aristotle: an influential teacher, a model of professional generosity, whose centrality is simultaneously inspiring and an obstacle to seeing clearly.

Perhaps, all said and nothing done, I have woken up as a curmudgeon. If I think of New Zealand poetry then I think of a schoolchild in the front row, arms tightly folded, seeing no one but the registered teacher. If I think of, say, Arabic or Spanish poetry then I think of a schoolchild in the back row, arms wide open, looking over dozens of others, perhaps adopting this one’s posture but that one’s gesture then abandoning both. And I know that Arabic and Spanish are greater for engaging with an overt subject rather than pirouetting on a pinhead, which is the indulgence of the privileged. I can’t regard the cynical non-poetry of Damien Wilkins as more deserving than that of the committed Bill Sewell, who wrote to Iain Lonie: ‘no doubt/ the palace seems full of intruders.’

Again based on your interview with Richard Reeve, you are not enamoured of the role of artists within a capitalist system…

Privilege and barbarism should be strangers; instead they are close relatives. Capitalism is that procedure whereby we sanctify greed. When our politicians reinforce the imperative of ‘economic growth’ they are enlarging the cathedral – in order to maintain the cemetery out back. Poetry is what marks the headstones and honours those below. It is antipathetic to systems. William Morris offers the consolation, but also the impotence, of hope: ‘It is not this or that…machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny which oppresses the lives of all of us’ (Art and Its Producers, 1881).

Privation magnifies appetite, but so does abundance. Whether blue or white, New Zealanders are greedy (once, say 10.47am on 17 June 1996, even I was greedy). We consume well above our share, and we go into debt to do so. That can’t last, nor should we try to make it last. Dr Megan Clark (CSIRO) warns that ‘in the next fifty years, we will need to produce as much food as we have ever produced in the entire human history.’ How? Our lifestyle is founded and founders upon impossible assumptions, our arts are regarded by administrators (who should know better) as consumables, and more people ask themselves ‘When Madonna adopts an orphan does she get stretchmarks?’ than worry over global warming.

I’m too worn to believe that the lyric fosters intimacy beyond a one-on-one reading – it’s not a blueprint for unity between people(s). But I recall Charles Brasch’s early pointer:

…the arts do not exist in a void. They are products of the individual imagination and at the same time social phenomena; raised above the heat and dust of everyday life, and yet closely implicated in it. Any serious consideration of them is bound to involve an inquiry into their place in society and the social functions which they fulfil – what part they play in life, what use they are. This in turn must lead sooner or later to questions about society itself and what it exists for, and, eventually, about the nature of man. (Landfall 1:1, March 1947)

After reading material from the winners of the seven literary prizes highlighted this week, I have to ask: Did we wean ourselves from an imperial motherland in order to suck the tit of free market globalization? Following New Zealand’s political reorientation, our poetry has turned from British to American (rather than indigenous) models. This is change but not the liberation that many claim.

Yes, this is a young country – but that doesn’t mean we have to trumpet the infantile. Perhaps the reward of sentiment and bathos is one indicator of our exhausting immaturity as a literature. Reading Jenny Bornholdt’s The Rocky Shore, which is anecdote leached of the life it purports to honour, I recall Christopher Lasch’s warning: ‘The record of the inner life becomes an unintentional parody of inner life. A literary genre that appears to affirm inwardness actually tells us that inner life is precisely what can no longer be taken seriously.’ E.M. Cioran is sharper and blunter: ‘art, on its way to exhaustion, has become both impossible and easy.’ There’s an ocean of talk but no one is walking on water. I take pleasure and hope from those prepared to ask harder questions than ‘How much attention?’ and ‘How much?’ Sally Ann McIntyre and Robert McLean, both of whom have yet to publish collections, can think and write beyond the obvious.

I remain a naturally reclusive character who, politically, is committed to the notion of community. There are many ways to approach that notion. For the poet Thomas James, whose stony tenderness I admire, it was through the theatre of extremity. You might write yourself into a corner, yet a corner is also a social place.

It’s my impression that some poets are writing primarily for an audience – writing to be heard, or read – whereas others are writing primarily for themselves. Do you think there is any truth in this distinction, and if so, which “camp” would you put yourself in?

Logically it’s possible to do both simultaneously. It depends on your temperament. You need to be extroverted to work the populist (rather than the public) vein with integrity. An audience may be the intended but it is not the only beneficiary of fine writing. Here some poets proceed, filled with a rather bumptious enthusiasm, on the basis that they are required to entertain primarily rather than secondarily – and they do violence to their work by trying to be stand-up comedians. They may be praised for a gritty accessibility (Tuwhare, Colquhoun, Camp) but, after picking up their collections, my fingers are left sticky because the appeal is often sentimental. I don’t feel either capable or obligated to enter the bun fight for popularity so I suppose I write for my self.

If I attend then language will provide entry points for that silence which is the reservoir of the reader’s memory – although I know it is impossible to reach let alone satisfy an undifferentiated mass. ‘I write for the people’ is meaningless, whereas ‘I write for the person’ means a good deal. Like many others I attempt to make sense of the senseless, to move with purpose through the arbitrary, to learn from instances of hate how to rage my way into the impassioned calm that is love. You don’t have to be a poet to do this. A gardener might have more success. But poetry is my method and my madness. Because language is social then I necessarily have a social vision – it’s not coherent but it is motivating.

More generally, why do you write poetry?

Poetry is a way of knowing. My poems work to limit the claims of pathos as they announce them.

You have previously worked as a pyrotechnics technician and SFX supervisor for acts including Janet Jackson and Metallica. Has it left traces on your poetry?

Pyrotechnics promised a wider collaboration with the musical, sporting and entrepreneurial worlds than was possible in literary New Zealand. While visceral, fireworks are impersonal and I wanted clear of the word writer. Perhaps my poems had come, like the trees of Birnam Wood, to rout the person who owned them. I withdrew from the submission-publication-review cycle. I fell silent, only it didn’t feel like falling.

What then? Kenosis. Fireworks were and are part of that challenge to empty. They appear to dominate the sky but it’s a percussive illusion; they get their power through surrendering to the night. By vanishing they stay with us. Seeing is not believing; belief comes after the seeing, when you’re gazing at black. And with poetry you have to listen for what’s not there. An attentive listener knows the word partners something larger than a dictionary definition. On tour, rigging in gantries, then smoking at four in the morning under security lights rather than the moon – it all helped me to weigh silence.

Designing fireworks displays, articulating space, gave me the strength to attempt longer poems: I was now confident of my ability to structure the unseen, the becoming. How? If site provides context then fireworks don’t so much map as transcend it because they take the viewer into an apprehension of the eternal through the momentary. The report of a launching charge is more than a deafening report on experience. Exposed by the exploding shell, perhaps site is akin to the light-sensitive paper that photographs are printed on – but a paper that has not been treated with fixative. When the spreading charge transforms common chemicals into uncommon effects, then the audience participates more than the pyrotechnician. No exposure matches that of the spirit – it cannot be captured. After all, is this so different from what happens with language? Words turn around the world, searching the pockets of discarded jackets for secrets. See, here is a piece of crumpled paper. It is the charred casing of a star shell.

If it were possible, would you want to be a full-time poet?

A poet is like an alcoholic: dry or wet, he remains one until he runs out of time. My maternal grandfather and uncle both died at 61. They were only 11 years older than I am now. I’d like the opportunity they never got to work uninterrupted. So many poems have been lost because of my peripatetic history, however I’m still writing. I’m conscious of the sustained silence of talented poets like Rob Allan, Julia Allen, Blair French, Brian Garrett and Michael Mintrom; also of the passing of Michael August, Iain Lonie, Joanna Paul, Nancy Ragland and Bill Sewell. I wear a ring which was made in Moesia shortly after the death of Ovid. Whenever I’m worried by trivia I admire the bezel. It tells me that I have all the time in the world, which is no time at all.


Freighters destabilized by their cargo,
poets nose into the bar
and take on water.
The resigned smile of a lemon slice;
the parasol that drags like an anchor.
What a to do
now there’s nothing to be done.


The strength of the current
measureless, everyone was swept
off – even the historian
before he could take note.
You never know muttered Mum,
tucking in her skirts
as the sun came up for air.


Too ridiculous alluding to Odysseus:
One man they hate and another they love…
The terror of being
overlooked, the pleasure of obscurity
balance on a blade of grass
moved by sharp gusts rather than gods
who are edgy yet blunt.


You can’t take the faces with you
but they come. No miracle
on the road, just haze
and the dust ahead, although
direction is neither here nor there.
The signposts are left-overs:
Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Disneyland.

UPDATE FROM TIM: This interview has sparked off a very interesting discussion on Ross Brighton’s blog. Worth checking out!

Voyagers: The Contents

Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand has just been published. You can buy Voyagers from as a paperback or Kindle e-book, or from Fishpond in New Zealand. You can also find out more about Voyagers, and buy it directly from the publisher, at the Voyagers mini-site.

Here are the contents of Voyagers. Although we weren’t able to include every poem and every poet that we would have liked, I hope you’ll agree that the anthology contains an impressive selection of poets.

The general themes of the sections are: “Back to the Future” – time travel. “Apocalypse Now” – apocalypses, nuclear and otherwise. “Altered States” – robots and other non-human, or transformed, life forms. “ET” – aliens. “When Worlds Collide” – astronomy, and the beginning stages of space exploration. “The Final Frontier” – life and exploration in deep space.


Back to the Future

Anna Rugis, the poetry of the future
Louis Johnson, To a Science-Fiction Writer
A.R.D. Fairburn, 2000 A.D.
Janet Charman, in your dreams
Bill Sewell, Utopia
Alistair Paterson, Time traveller
David Gregory, Einstein’s Theory Simply Explained
Jenny Powell with John Dolan, Note to the Aliens
Raewyn Alexander, in the future when we grow new brains
Alan Brunton, F/S
Harvey Molloy, Nanosphere
Meliors Simms, Two Kinds of Time
Jack Perkins, Out of Time
Jacqueline Crompton Ottaway, Black Hole
Tim Jones, Good Solid Work

Apocalypse Now

John Dolan, The Siege of Dunedin
David Eggleton, Overseasia
Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Looking at Kapiti
Bill Sewell, The World Catastrophe
Rachel McAlpine, Satellites
David Eggleton, 60-Second Warning
Meg Campbell, The End of the World
Vivienne Plumb, The Last Day of the World
Louis Johnson, Four Poems from the Strontium Age
Michael O’Leary, Nuclear Family – A Fragment
Ruth Gilbert, Still Centre
Fleur Adcock, Last Song
Rob Jackaman, from Lee: A Science Fiction Poem
Marilyn Duckworth, Thin Air
Fiona Kidman, An aftermath
Kevin Ireland, Instructions About Global Warming

Altered States

Iain Sharp, Karen Carpenter Calls Interplanetary Craft
Gordon Challis, The Thermostatic Man
Trevor Reeves, they’re keeping tabs
Mary Cresswell, Metastasis
Simon Williamson, Japan 2030
Tony Beyer, Kron
Louis Johnson, Love Among the Daleks
Seán McMahon, planet one
Janis Freegard, Beside the Laughing Kitchen
Thomas Mitchell, Rituals
Alan Brunton, Vis Imaginitiva
Harvey McQueen, After the Disaster
Jenny Argante, Space Age Lover
Chris Else, Hypnogogia
James Norcliffe, the ascent
Fleur Adcock, from “Gas”


Vivienne Plumb, Signs of Activity
Michael Morrissey, UFOs in Autumn
Andrew Fagan, A Spaceship Has Landed Near Nuhaka
Dana Bryce, Dreams of Alien Love
Tracie McBride, Contact
Cliff Fell, In Truth or Consequences
Nelson Wattie, The Art of Translation
Phil Kawana, This machine kills aliens
Michael Morrissey, Are the Andromedans Like Us
Mark Pirie, Dan and His Amazing Cat
James Dignan, Great Minds
Cath Randle, The Purple fantastic, feels like elastic, spangled and plastic ray gun
Jane Matheson, An Alien’s Notes on first seeing a prunus-plum tree
Harvey McQueen, Return
Owen Marshall, Awakening
Peter Bland, An Old Man and Science Fiction

When Worlds Collide

Katherine Liddy, Crab Nebula
Anna Jackson, Death Star
Stephen Oliver, Manned Mission to the Green Planet
Hilaire Kirkland, Three Poems
Michael O’Leary, Hey man, Wow! [Jimi Hendrix]
Robin Fry, Lift-off
Tim Jones, Touchdown
Tim Jones, The First Artist on Mars
Puri Alvarez, Saturn’s Rings
Robert Sullivan, from Star Waka
Chris Pigott, ‘We’re thinking of going into space’
Mark Pirie, Liam Going
Iain Britton, Departing Takaparawha
Bill Sewell, The Imaginary Voyage
Rachel Bush, Voyagers
Stephen Oliver, Letter to an Astronomer

The Final Frontier

Helen Rickerby, Tabloid Headlines
Sue Wootton, the verdigris critic
Richard von Sturmer, from “Mill Pond Poems”
Brian Turner, Earth Star
Gary Forrester, The Thirst That Can Never Be Slaked
David Kārena-Holmes, Your Being
John Dolan, In Which I Materialize, Horribly Maimed, in the Transporter Room of the Enterprise
Mark Pirie, The Rescue Mission
Tze Ming Mok, Lament of the imperfect copy of Ensign Harry Kim
Nic Hill, Somewhere Else
Tim Jones, The stars, Natasha
Mike Webber, My Personal Universe
Bill Sewell, Space & Time

Voyagers: Here At Last

I was going to do a much longer and more complicated blog post tonight, but I’m too tired. So instead, this is just to say that I have a copy of Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand sitting right here besides me, and that feels good!

Mark Pirie and I started on this project in 2004, when we called for submissions for our planned anthology of New Zealand science fiction poetry. While submissions were coming in, we went off and deepened our knowledge of New Zealand poetry by looking for previously-published SF poems. (Well, I deepened my knowledge – Mark’s was pretty deep already.)

By mid-2005, we had the first version of the manuscript pretty much sorted out. As I’ve previously recounted, finding a publisher proved to be difficult, and we were very pleased when Interactive Publications of Brisbane took the project on in 2008. We couldn’t include all the poems we wished, but those we have included look rather good to me. You can find sample poems from the book, by David Gregory, Meg Campbell and Mary Cresswell, at the Voyagers mini-site (bottom right of that page).

Mark and I will be sending out contributors’ and review copies over the next couple of weeks. There will be a New Zealand launch for Voyagers in July, but if you’d like to get a copy while it’s fresh off the presses, you can buy it from as a paperback or Kindle e-book (search for “Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry”), or from Fishpond in New Zealand. You can also find out more about Voyagers, and buy it directly from the publisher, at the Voyagers mini-site.

All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens Reprinted / First Light

All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens, my poetry collection published in 2007, has been reprinted: a small reprint, but still, it’s good to be in a position to do so.

In case you’ve yet to sample its delights, you can:

Here’s “First Light””, a poem from All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens. I planned to read it in Christchurch a couple of weeks ago, but, to Joanna Preston’s disappointment, ran out of time. Until I make an audio file of it, this print version is the best I can do.

First Light

First light on the new sea. Cows
crop hilltops turned islands.
Small boats sound the fathoms
over the family farm.

On sudden shores, survivors
gather to click and point. There’s Aunt Edna.
There’s her house, three china ducks
riding the morning tide.

Sky blue, smell
briny. Somewhere down there, graveyards,
urupa. The divisions, ancestral, cadastral,
that put a human stamp on land.

Aid is coming. Helicopters,
news crews, interviews and articles.
Grief and condescension. Coat,
blanket, a fusilade of cans.

Fog on devastation. Sudden eddies.
The drowned turbines of Te Apiti
blades still turning
mine the new and liquid wind.

Enamel: The First Issue of a New Literary Journal

Emma Barnes, in addition to being a fine poet herself, is the editor of the new literary journal Enamel. The first issue of Enamel has just been published, and I’m pleased to say that I have two poems in it: “The Penciller” and “Nightlife”.

Emma starts her editorial by saying:

When I decided to start Enamel I naively placed the word pro-feminist in my call for submissions. At the time of writing I phrased it as a slight bias toward pro-feminist literature. Little did I know that this would cause a dearth of submisions from anyone who didn’t identify as a woman. Tumbleweeds rolled across my inbox.

Well, Emma seems to have dealt with that tumbleweed problem (you can probably turn rolling tumbleweeds off using a hidden option in Gmail), because there are some fine poems in this first issue of Enamel – although it’s true that not many of the poets are of the masculine persuasion. The poets represented in this issue are Johanna Aitchison, Anna Forsyth, Tim Jones, Miriam Barr, Jennifer Compton, Helen Heath, Reihana MacDonald Robinson, Andrew Coyle, Meg Davies, Elizabeth Welsh, Ruby Mulholland, Meliors Simms, Lori Leigh, Marcia Arrieta, and Helen Rickerby.

On my first, quick look at the issue, poems that stood out for me included “Extravagant Promises” by Meliors Simms, “Useful Cupboards” by Jennifer Compton, and “Nothinghead” by Helen Rickerby. But that’s just on a first look: I am sure there will be more when I take the time to look again.

Emma is selling hard copies of Enamel through TradeMe for a price between $10 and $15. PDF copies are available for a donation. And if you’re interesting in contributing, the next issue of Enamel is due to be published in March 2010.

Calls for Submissions

Two calls from submissions that may be of interest to New Zealand writers:

1) An Anthology of Writing about Canterbury

Wily Publications invites submissions of poetry and short prose (up to 2000 words) for an anthology featuring writings about Canterbury – coast, plains and high country. Fiction and non-fiction, current and historical works are welcomed, but copyright must be held by the person submitting the work. Work may be previously published, but not anthologised.

Submissions must be typed, double spaced (poetry may be single spaced), on one side of A4. Please ensure that name, postal and email addresses are included, a statement of ownership of copyright, as well as a stamped self-addressed envelope. Submissions will not be returned, and unaccepted work will be destroyed. Following publication, a small payment will be made for accepted work.

Please send submissions to: Canterbury Anthology, 37A Holly Road, Christchurch 8014

Submissions must be received by 28 February 2009.

2) US poetry journal looking for New Zealand poetry

Reconfigurations: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture

Reconfigurations is seeking excellent contemporary New Zealand poems for its November 2009 issue. Edited largely in the U.S., Reconfigurations is an electronic, peer-reviewed, international, annual journal for poetics and poetry, creative and scholarly writing, innovative and traditional concerns with literary arts and cultural studies.

Bryan Walpert will make the initial selection of poems. These will then be peer-reviewed by a panel of editors at Reconfigurations, who may opt to take all or only a selection of these. Please send up to five of your best poems by 15 April 2009 in a single Word file attachment to Bryan Walpert at b.walpert (at) along with a bio in the body of the email of up to 75 words. Please simply use “Reconfigurations” as your subject line. Unpublished work is preferred and will be given priority, but work published only in New Zealand will be considered. If you include published work, please indicate which poems have been published, where, and when.