Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2023

editor Chris Tse photographer Michael Gibson In February 2023, as the first poems to consider for Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems began to accumulate in my inbox, a poem hit the headlines in Aotearoa and sparked a fiery public debate about poetry and racism. Tusiata Avia’s ‘250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand’ has probably become the most talked about New Zealand poem of the past few years, but the price for that honour has been high. Avia has spoken openly about the vitriolic responses she received throughout 2023, including attacks from MPs and death threats.[1]

The public discourse veered from discussing the merits of the poem, to debates about free speech, hate speech, censorship, arts (de)funding, and ‘reverse racism’. The more considered and thoughtful analyses of the poem led to conversations about the legacy of Cook, colonisation, and intergenerational trauma.[2] If ever we needed proof that poetry can still challenge and provoke, this was it.  

The way the controversy unfolded made it unsafe for some people to speak up without exposing themselves to a sea of trolls and racists. The power of poetry is synonymous with speaking truth to power, which is often at odds with who gets to police what is said, and how. Is it a fair fight when you have leaders of political parties with large platforms and access to the media targeting one of our most celebrated poets? Here and around the world, we are seeing creatives caught in campaigns of misinformation and bigotry, sometimes driven by those in power. The effects of this are concerning: for example, cultural institutions have cancelled events featuring writers who are outspoken against genocide, and tired anti-queer and racist rhetoric is being used to threaten writers and performers, and fuel the surge in book bans.

I want to acknowledge this controversy because of the context in which I am writing this introductionŌrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems is an anthology that seeks to provide something of a ‘state of the nation’ view of poetry. Although Avia’s poem was first published in 2020 and had mostly flown under the general public’s radar, the delayed attention it received raised the question of whether or not people actually read or care about poetry. I’ve been asked variations of this question a lot since becoming New Zealand Poet Laureate—even by poets and people who actively seek out and read poetry or attend poetry events!  

I tend to answer this question by reminding people about the times we reach for poetry—to mark those big life moments like weddings, funerals, and other significant events, and also when national or global events are too much for us to process or express in everyday language. Since the escalation of the atrocities in Palestine, my social media feeds have been flooded with poems written by Palestinian poets and those sympathetic to their cause. People have shared these as a way to express their grief and rage, or to raise awareness of what is happening. Although it may seem like a small action, it reinforces how poetry holds a space for connection—the idea of poetry is a shared language that helps us to hold up a mirror to the world so we can make something happen, from a declaration of love to a call for change.  

The 25 poems I’ve selected for this year’s Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems are all mirrors reflecting back a multitude of worlds and experiences. These are the poems that stood out to me for the way in which they navigated inner and outer worlds, or gave life to the poets’ hopes for themselves and their communities. These poems don’t gloss over the complicated realities of life, nor do they resign themselves to a singular vision of what our future(s) might look like. 

Before embarking on this herculean editing task, I used to think I read most New Zealand poetry published each year. Oh how wrong I was. As the number of poems and books grew throughout the year, so did my disbelief and exasperation. How could our small country possibly produce this many poems? In a single year?! The final tally: 3,784 poems. That means the 25 poems presented in this year’s edition account for less than 1% of all the poems I read and considered (I’ve no doubt that some poems didn’t get caught in my reading net, but between myself and the team at the International Institute of Modern Letters we did try to capture as much as possible).[3]

New Zealand poetry is thriving—not just in quantity, but also in quality. At this point, I’ll make the obligatory comment that ‘best’ is somewhat impossible to follow as a framework for selecting poems. I did what other past editors have done—I followed my instincts as a poetry reader but stayed open to letting the poems challenge my own biases and tastes. The beauty of reading this much poetry is that I got to discover many poets new to me whose work I’ll be closely following from now on. 

I mostly read while travelling last year, squeezing in poems on trains and planes, in the limbo that is the international airport gate, and at 3AM when jet lag got the best of me. It felt like having a party of New Zealand poets as travel companions, each of their poems anchoring me back in Aotearoa. Reading these poems in places other than Aotearoa made me realise that what makes our poetry so special is its connection to the whenua and our histories without shying away from the light and the dark, the tears and celebrations.  

New Zealand poets still have one foot firmly in the past, in more ways than one. For example, our tradition of nature poetry is strong—we’re still drawn to landscape and the natural world, interrogating our evolving relationship with the land as we march ever onward into the climate crisis (side note: there were birds everywhere in the poems—we might need to introduce a licensing fee for using their likeness in our poetry).  

The past is also where a lot of poets write from, either to unpack its impact on our present or to completely rewrite to show what could have been. As the oft-repeated whakatauki goes, 'Ka mua, ka muri'—our poets know that the past is a starting point for being able to imagine or write a future into existence. Now more than ever our poets are using poetry to reconcile the past, whether it’s the stories we were raised with, or the ones that have been marginalised. 

Individually, these 25 poems are tender, aggressive, funny, angry, and contemplative. Collectively, they emphasise the power of poetry to communicate with an open heart without fear of retribution. These are the poems that surprised and delighted me the most, that made me pause to sit in my own discomfort or revel in another poet’s joy. Above all, they’re the poems I thought other people need to read. 

It’s an immense privilege to edit Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems—to not only follow in the footsteps of the great work carried out by previous editors, but to also be given access to such a vast amount of poetry. Thank you to every poet who put something out into the world in 2023—every single one of your poems is a stitch in the larger tapestry that tells the story of New Zealand poetry. Things would not have gone so smoothly without the support and guidance of Clare Moleta, Katie Hardwick-Smith, and Chris Price at the IIML, and Claire Orchard for pulling everything together for the website. Thank you to my dear friend (and 2022’s editor) Louise Wallace for checking in throughout the year and being a sounding board when I was getting down to finalising my selection.  

Finally, huge cheers to Aotearoa’s hardworking editors and publishers for creating spaces for our poets to share their work, and for giving these poems their first homes. I might have felt overwhelmed by the amount I had to read this past year (SO MANY POEMS) but I remain grateful, as a poet and as a reader, for your mahi. 

Chris Tse

[1] The furore around Avia was reignited in December 2023 when she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.
[2] See Claire Mabey’s close reading of the poem on The Spinoff and Phillip Matthew’s article about the controversy in The Press.
[3] Currently Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems only considers poems that have appeared in print. I want to acknowledge and mihi to
       the incredible spoken word and slam artists in Aotearoa who continue to produce some of the most incendiary poetry year after year.

Chris Tse is the author of three poetry collections published by Auckland University Press: How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (AUP, 2014, winner of the 2016 Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry) HE’S SO MASC (AUP, 2018), and Super Model Minority (AUP, 2022, a finalist for the 2023 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and longlisted at the 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards). He and Emma Barnes edited Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers from Aotearoa (AUP, 2021). In August 2022, Chris was appointed Aotearoa New Zealand’s 13th Poet Laureate. His term has been extended to the end of August 2025.

Links

Chris Tse's website

Auckland University Press author page 

 

Photographer credit: Michael Gibson