Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2009
Introduction by 2009 editor Robyn Marsack
It was an honour to be asked to edit Best New Zealand Poems 2009, and a pleasure: it mitigated the withdrawal symptoms I'd begun to experience after reading so much poetry for the anthology I edited last year with Andrew Johnston, Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets (Carcanet Press, 2009). I missed the dialogue and debate with Andrew, who edited Best New Zealand Poems 2005; I'm in a more exposed position as a single editor. Still, I console myself with the thought that this isn't the last word on New Zealand poetry, it's a partial choice, a tributary of the Best New Zealand Poems river.
It comes from a particular place: New Zealand viewed from Scotland – where there are not as many presses publishing poetry. Certainly there is no university press that takes a gamble on creative writing, as Victoria University Press so prominently does, and Auckland University Press too. Perhaps as a consequence of that, there seem to be fewer poets in New Zealand publishing pamphlets/chapbooks, which flourish here. I was glad to see some very beautifully designed and printed publications: from Neoismist Press, from Seraph Press – one with its string and knitting needle (fortunately not impounded at the Post Office), from Gumtree Press and Fernbank Studio/Wellington Plains. Gregory O'Brien's 'Dylan Thomas (b.2003), Coolmore Stud, New South Wales' appeared in PN Review in the UK, but it was in the Fernbank Studio edition that it made its impression. I'm susceptible to – I relish – the presentation of a poem by a poet/publisher with visual skills, so it was good to see those in evidence.
Poets shouldn't take for granted the handsome New Zealand periodicals – such publications are few and far between here in the north. Landfall, Sport and JAAM suggest a very confident literary culture, and they're the tip of it – Takahe, Bravado, the online issues such as 4th Floor and Turbine, all create a sense that poets have plenty of ways of getting poems out to readers. Even where poetry is not paramount, it sidles in: to the New Zealand Listener, The Gardener's Journal of New Zealand, an exhibition catalogue, an orchestral programme. And of course New Zealanders get published abroad: in Heat and Quadrant in Australia; PN Review, the Times Literary Supplement and Poetry London in the UK; in a range of American and online journals.
For the editor of Best New Zealand Poems this means there's an enormous amount to read, and like my predecessors I'm very grateful for all the support from the folk at the International Institute of Modern Letters, especially Clare Moleta who has been so calmly efficient. Tendencies previous editors have remarked on remain true: for instance, that well-established presses still publish most of the best work; that the increasing linguistic variety in New Zealand is not represented to the extent one would expect. Like those editors, I chose a dozen or fifteen poems with ease and then swithered over others. I won't list them here except to say that I did like Selina Tusitala Marsh's 'hone said', with its genealogy of a phrase; both Hone Tuwhare and Alastair Te Ariki Campbell inspired affectionate tributes this year.
Where to begin: with deer, rabbits and sheep? They seem to be almost as common in New Zealand poetry, this year at least, as they are in the landscape. Of course they're mainly on their way to being killed, which I suppose is also a true reflection of the way things are, but I hadn't expected poems to speak of the world so faithfully. In ‘a possible journey’ Kerrin P. Sharpe's deer is very far from 'the bambi school'. Some of those poems were not for the squeamish.
I hope my choice reflects something of the wide variety of styles and voices I encountered: from the sensuous intelligence of Michele Leggott's 'nice feijoas' to the single dart thrown by Geoff Cochrane ('What Sixty Minutes teaches' ); from Gregory O'Brien’s found poem to David Howard's counterpoint, 'Overture: Aotearoa'; from the grave wit of Elizabeth Smither's 'Two adorable things about Mozart' to Jennifer Compton's witty nostalgia in 'The Threepenny Kowhai Stamp Brooch'; the childhood vignettes of Lynn Davidson ('Before we all hung out in cafés'), Marty Smith ('Hat') and Louise Wallace ('The Poi Girls') which open out into adult vistas and remain open . . . Remaining open, that's vital. And even poems that close brilliantly – such as Ian Wedde's extract 'from Good Business' or Chris Price's 'Stowage' – stop only on the page, not in the mind.
Perhaps it's because I haven't lived in New Zealand continuously since I was an adolescent that poems of childhood attracted me, or perhaps it's a particular strength of New Zealand literature. So although many weather poems in Brian Turner's new collection repaid re-reading, it was his a-typical depiction of childhood in 'Fear' that stayed; and later, from the pages of the Listener, Douglas Wright's deeply shadowed 'Exposure'.
Of course some – perhaps most? – of these poems are not anchored in New Zealand society or its landscapes; why should they be? As George Bernard Shaw said, 'A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones'. The furthest extreme is John Gallas's marvellous 'the Mongolian Women's Orchestra', and Lynn Jenner's mysterious 'A Hassidic story might start . . .'; Sarah Broom's 'North' is unlocatable yet cinematically exact, James Norcliffe's 'yet another poem about a giraffe' grazes our disappearing world, while Bernadette Hall's fantastic fox ('The Fox') is glimpsed in Ireland. In ‘Nafanua goes to Russia and meets some friends from back home’, Tusitala Avia's Pacific goddess incandescently inhabits the streets of Moscow. And C.K. Stead's 'At the Villa dei Pini' sounds like Italy but is reminiscent of Menton – singing lines. Ashleigh Young's 'Certain Trees' could be wind-tossed anywhere, I suppose, but pegging the clothes out speaks to me of New Zealand.
Simply because a thing is true doesn't make it the right subject for a poem – especially if it's recounted in the 'then . . . and then' style which works in conversation but doesn't add up to a poem. Emma Neale's 'Proposal' is an object lesson in narrative, a controlled explosion; perhaps Tim Upperton did find 'The starlings' in his attic, but whether it's his experience or not, his method of composition makes it memorable: the birds don't know 'when to leave off', but the poet does.
Related to the flat story is the thin line. Occasionally I longed for fat poems. There are a lot of two-line stanzas out there, and sometimes that construction seemed quite arbitrary. Brent Kininmont's 'Morphine' is one of my choices, risking slightness but finding its perfect metaphor in magpies. There were a lot of very skinny, word-a-line poems, though, and I grew tired of them. The same poems often had a thin reason for existing, which dwindled as the poem inched down the page.
Readers may find my choices formally conservative. I was conscious that this site is, for an audience outside New Zealand, a window on to its poetry and I suspect that on the web – even more than on the printed page – a poem that looks difficult will cause the cursor to stray, discourage lingering. Yet each of these poems offers more at a second reading than at the first, passing the most basic test. 'What I love about poetry', wrote Edwin Morgan, the Scottish Laureate, 'is its ion engine': such engines propel rockets very efficiently, using less power and lasting for years. I'm hoping that these poems will propel themselves into readers' minds, and orbit there for a long time to come.
Glasgow, February 2010
Robyn Marsack was born and grew up in Wellington, and graduated from Victoria University. She gained a D.Phil. from Oxford University with a thesis on Louis MacNeice, and later joined Carcanet Press. She became a freelance publishers' editor, reviewer and translator when she and her husband moved to Glasgow in 1987, and then Director of the Scottish Poetry Library (in Edinburgh) in 2000. She edited Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets with Andrew Johnston (VUP/Carcanet, 2009), and her essay 'Home Thoughts from Abroad' appeared in Sport 37.