An Arabic poetry lesson in Jakarta

for W.


I just know he
scooped this baby
off the floor of the
detention centre
caff. Make
your similes small
so as not to attract
trouble. After a
life sentence, you
know a good rule
will save your ass
if not your bathos.
A boat choking on
its own load, in a
storm of no god
damn covenant,
sixteen survivors
and he says ‘it was
like a spoon. A
little wooden
spoon in the water.’

Tze Ming Mok was born in Auckland in 1978 to migrant parents. As well as being a writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, reviews and journalism, she makes occasional forays into political activism and full-time bureaucracy. Her writing has appeared in the NZ ListenerSportMeanjinPoetry New ZealandJAAM, and in Landfall issues 206, 207 and 208. In 2004 she was co-winner of the Landfall Essay Prize. That year she also organised a multicultural march to Parliament against racism and hate-crimes. During the year of the Tampa asylum-seeker crisis off the coast of Australia, she was a Refugee Status Officer for the New Zealand government. She has lived in Chengdu, Cairo and Wellington but always returns to Auckland, where she currently works for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.

Mok comments: ‘Did I really write this poem? Or did he slide it across the desk to me, folded into his ID card, the price for Charon to ferry him out of Hell?

‘I’m not allowed to say. I can hear the SIS tapping on my window. There was a period of three years in which I had given up on writing, a condition initially brought on by attending a university Creative Writing class. In particular I decided to despise poetry: the stories heard daily in my job demonstrated the impossibility of its existence. In 2002, in different countries and different prisons, I interviewed two Arabic asylum-seekers who proved otherwise. The first was a professional poet – his poem is not for release, though he, like W., made it out alive.

‘It occurred to me then that if writing poetry is self-indulgent, then forgoing the writing of poetry is even more self-indulgent. Writer’s block has no place down the cell block. If there seems to be no space left in the world for poetry, write smaller poems. We can make them fit.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
Poetry NZ issue 28
NZETC profile
Arts Foundation New Generation Award recipient profile