Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2022
I began the year thinking: this won't be so hard; I know what I like. When the first packet of new collections arrived in March, I quickly reassessed. The poets were not going to make my job easy. Good for them, I thought, and also … bring it. In March, I read in evening snatches—my son's daycare closed due to Covid. I read on our deck in slices of winter Dunedin sun in June. I read on the floor of Auckland Airport between flights, Puffin Rock playing on my laptop for my son—poems while all the feet passed us by. In August, my father died—I read poems for shelter, when I didn't feel like doing anything else. Why do I say this? Because poetry is personal—it's nothing but—just as my choices are here. Over Christmas, I read under Northland pōhutukawa, and in January, the last month of reading, I became equal parts poetry and coffee, working ferociously through to the end of the pile. Finally, my long list of poems entered an elimination round, and there were some difficult decisions to make. I tried to think of a visitor to our poetry shore—what could I include to show its terrain?
Endings are always important and I love a good sucker punch, but those are my general tells. I tried to pick poems that were the poet's best—that surprised me with all the other things a poem could do—a celebration of the breadth of what poetry means to us in Aotearoa, now. I need to say that Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems is a difficult beast. There is a certain art to hitting a poem out of the park with a single swing. Some poems sing more strongly when situated in the book that contains them, where the individual poems build a multilevel house with each page turned. There were many collections I enjoyed in that vein. But the poets here have nailed it, this particular accomplishment—a home run.
These poems stuck—a pocket of water in my ears I could not shake out (in a good way). In a list of titles, they glistened, and I could recall each of them fully formed, like small buildings with their own sense of architecture. Some of these poems have teeth—they ask important questions and refuse to let us frame ourselves as innocent bystanders (Gildea and ranapiri). 'Can they walk away from it? / Can they still go swimming?' Rebecca Hawkes writes, and I am almost afraid to think about the answer (again, in a good way). Other poems explore time, place, lineage and legacy—Jones, Keeble, Rahurahu and Stevens. There are expressions of love, heartache and tenderness that operate with needle-like precision—'U & me baby, butch 4 butch apocalypse dreams' by Elliot McKenzie, Nick Ascroft's ‘Always saying sorry’, and Frances Samuel's ‘Red Whistle, Orange Lifejacket’ ('If you need me, you just breathe'). Many poems capture the tension of minutiae, the small moments that make up a life, razor-sharp (Bach, Bland, Kaho and Mohamed)—we are all rooting for the duck by the end of Elizabeth Smither's 'Getting the duck to fly'. There are poems that appear to exist within their own world, held up by their own magic (Cho, Harvey and McMillan).
Jordan Hamel's 'Dan and Steve, Steve and Dan, in a field, at the beach…', was an opening I could not ignore (you had me at 'Vortex Mega Howler'), and lines from Nafanua Purcell Kersel's 'Protection Order' would not leave my mind ('I will make mud pies and crocheted hats. / Sauerkrauted, playdoughed, sourdoughed, / tan-skinned, heavy-muscled, big-brained kids'.) I could nearly hear the children splashing about in Thorndon Pool in Wen-Juenn Lee’s 'chinese class', and the groan on the netball courts in James Brown's 'Resilience on Checkout 7' as a missed pass sailed by. There were poems with language I wanted to roll around in my mouth—Sarah Scott’s 'Leaven' and Alan Roddick's 'Under Paihia Hill'.
When I look at this selection I will remember my Dad, who always loved a crisp poetic coastline, seabirds in flight, some of which he'd find here. Other poems might have raised questions for him—a healthy push at the perception of what a poem could be. And to others, he'd say in mock jest, what the bloody hell was that?! (here’s looking at you, Chris Tse)—my favourite kind of poem. A few people who made my life infinitely easier over the course of the year were Clare Moleta for keeping track of the incoming submissions, Katie Hardwick-Smith and the team at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Thank you to Chris Price for the chance to read so many expressions on the page. Congratulations to the editors, journals and publishers who first made space for this work (we salute you!), and most importantly, congratulations to the poets, who speak to one another indirectly, their words pinging off each other's like sonar. They speak to the past and map where we might go. It’s a pleasure and privilege to share this issue, and to hold up these poems for some more time in the sun. I hope you will enjoy them too.
Photo credit: Ebony Lamb
Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poems, with her latest collection, This is a story about your mother, forthcoming in May 2023, published by Te Herenga Waka University Press. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2008, winning the Biggs Prize for Poetry, and was the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago, Dunedin, in 2015. She is the founder and editor of Starling, an online journal publishing the work of young writers from Aotearoa.