Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2018

Fiona Farrell (photo credit: Caroline Davies)

Photo by Caroline Davies

1.   ‘A poem’? ‘Something made’. That’s all it means. As if the Greeks simply gave up on finding a better word for it. Something made, like a cake. A thing made from the words that are our species’s woof and oink and squeak. A thing made from Heaney’s line and circle. 

2.  ‘Best’? That’s vague too. There were hundreds. I gave up counting around 1100. They arrived by courier from the IIML, or in the post or by email from individual poets, they turned up in periodicals or in the paper or online as the Monday poem, the Friday poem, the Saturday poem. Some I heard at readings and followed up, for only published poems that had passed some independent editorial scrutiny were eligible.  

Personal taste was unavoidable. I’m aware of limitation and prejudice. I like structure, for example, but not laborious constrictionI like technical bravura. I enjoy seeing a poet step out onto the skinny blade of reason, juggling words while maintaining perfect balance. All the arts flirt with balance and unreason: with hallucination and ecstasy and nightmare and hearing voices and shape-shiftingThe artistry lies in shaping that unreason, whether by imposing existing codes and conventions, or by inventing new and convincing ones. I like witnessing that control, whether it is in the contortions of dance or the material manipulations of visual arts, or in poetry where I want to be convinced the poet is making something more deliberate than word salad.   

3.  ‘New Zealand’? Time and place were operational here. Only poems written by people born on this Pacific archipelago, or resident here for a significant period. Only poems published within the 365 days, 5 hours and 59 minutes it took us to circle the sun.

4.  ‘My process? I read the poems. I placed those I liked in a cardboard carton that had held one dozen 150gm packs of cheese and onion potato chips. I re-read. Discarded. Read again, changed my mind, added, removed, until only those poems remained that had lodged most deeply. There were 31, but it had to be just 25. It was difficult. 

5.   An introduction’? What can I say? I’m not a professional critic, editor or academic. I like poems. Reading them, hearing them, writing them. What can I say, after reading the hundreds of poems published in my country in the past year?

6.  New Zealand poems are flexible in their fusions of register and linguistic reference. Tusiata Avia’s ‘Some notes for critics’ for example, makes forceful political and literary critique out of marginalia. Jenny Bornholdt anchors a quiet terror in the profound gravity of the King James version. Scraps of social media vacuity build to razor sharp satire in Bill Manhire’s ‘Thread’ essa may ranapiri’s ‘echidna’ poems fuse a graphic fantasy of hybrid creatures with Genesis in unnerving new creation. New Zealand poets swear and quote Shakespeare in a single breath. They invent language, as in Mary McCallum’s giddy evocation of writer and mother in ‘Sycamore Tree’, where it is the words, chopped and gloriously breathless, that send us into a spin. A translator once told me she could not use some onomatopoeia – I forget what I’d written -  ‘Whoosh-ahh’ perhaps, for the sound of waves breaking on shingle – because in her language, neologism was prohibited. New Zealand poets face no such restriction. They talk plain and talk fancy, aware of tradition yet unburdened by notions of appropriateness, they invent, they play, and, best of all, this playfulness coexists with deep seriousness of purpose. 

Those hundreds of poems, gathered over a single year, formed a massive anthology, and if that means ‘ an arrangement of flowers’ - as it does by definition - then New Zealand poetry often reminds me of a garden I saw once, inland from Te Horo. Its flowers were a host of golden margarine containers and tin cans tacked to sticks. It was beautiful, this New Zealand version of common or garden. It was startling and provocative. What is beauty, after all? What is form and order? Why do we choose this and not that? Why does beauty exist in distortion? Why do we find it beautiful when a person stands on one calloused toe rather than with both feet firmly on the ground? Or when an apple is reduced to a crimson cube? Or when a sequence of words is forced from the patter of everyday speech? I’ve thought about that garden while plucking the blooms of 2018.   

7.  New Zealand poets seem conscious of public role. Maybe it is the influence of the public reading, which along with the writers’ festival, the Book Week and the Slam, turned up two or three decades ago, requiring writers to become performers, rewarding the extrovert rather than the quiet recluse. Or maybe it is a reframing of the poet as orator that has always been present in these islands. Either way, there are a lot of New Zealand poems addressed to ‘you’, though that ‘you’ takes on many guises. Sometimes it is substituting for ‘I’ or me’, taking on the universalised role that in other languages is expressed by some version of ‘one’. But more often, the ‘you’ is the listener Tayi Tibble’s  ‘Identity Politics’ in this collection, for example, fashions online purchase and Pacific voyage, ancient and modern, into a powerful confrontation with a ‘you’ who must respond to that insistent question: ‘Am I navigating correctly?’ Nikki-Lee Birdsey’s exquisitely nuanced ‘Mutuwhenua also addresses a ‘you’ to whom she offers her gift of a ‘good clean New Zealand memory’ fractured by lament for young death and those ‘small cold islands, some just for rich people, some just for birds.’   

The strong public stance of these poems along with their passionate directness and sheer technical control are not unique. New Zealand poetry in 2018 is full of such voices.  

8.  New Zealand poems are often – most often - written by women. Often by young women. I am old. I was born in 1947, the same year as Landfall. When I was beginning to read poems and trying to write them myself, entire issues featured no poems by women at all: 1963: 4 quarterly issues, 38 poems in total by men, 4 by women. 1964: 33 in total by men, 5 by women. The silence was deafening. It is impossible to express how it has felt to hear those voices gaining volume during my lifetime. Donna Ferguson, writing in the Guardian this January, discusses the impact of the internet in enabling young women to ‘change the rules of poetry.’ Booming sales figures in the UK and changing buyer profiles are quoted as evidence of success. (‘Rupi Kaur made nearly 1 million pounds from poetry sales last year…40% of poetry buyers are women under 35 while just 18% are men over 34…’). The article is headlined by Hera Lindsay Bird’s ‘Keats is dead’ - minus the kicker – and her first collection is listed among ‘the five best’, its author tagged as ‘the comic poet from New Zealand.’ Eh? Hera Lindsay Bird may be funny, but she’s definitely not ‘comic’. She assembles complex structures of simile and association and her 2018 poem ‘I want to get high my whole life with you’ is one of the most emotionally intricate I’ve read in years. More painful emotion is as powerfully expressed here in the sustained metaphor of Jess Fiebig’s Panic. There is a forceful physicality to such work that insists on individual recognition and defies a world that commodifies, trades, ignores, suppresses and abuses the feminine.     

I didn’t choose poems because their writers were women. Of course not. I blotted out author’s names, worked from photocopies, keeping a numbered record on a separate page, aiming for the anonymity of Manhire’s 100 New Zealand Poems where it is just the poem that matters. I like hearing women’s voices, but the Guardian article I think rather misses the point: it’s not just that poets are women, or young, but that their poems have something to say and they say it well.     

9.  New Zealand poems are shaped by race, class and gender, the fault lines that shift constantly beneath our feet determining everything on the surface, including what we say and who says it and how and when and where. Alice Te Punga Somerville’s ‘Rākau’ is one perfectly judged metaphor for the pain of finding the words. I can’t hope to comment, with my stumbling nightclass knowledge of te reo, on Te Ataahia Hurihanganui’s translation, but I know it will be the same yet different in the deepest way, because all words are.  

This poem, incidentally, appeared in a beautiful little handbound collection from Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press, Tatai Whetu: seven Maori women poets in translation, edited by Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis. Both editors and the publisher are poets and writers themselves, as are so many of those who edited or selected the contributions that filled the chippie carton: Emma Neale, for example, and Holly Hunter, Jenny Bornholdt, Mark Pirie, Diane Brown, Steve Braunias, Gail Ingram, Roger Hickin, Jeni Curtis, Mary McCallum, Ashleigh Young, Paula Green, James Norcliffe, Doc Drumheller, Mark Raffills, Paul Millar, Chris Price and Stephanie Burt . . . Long lists of acknowledgment accompanied collections, along with dedications, cover endorsements, critiques, one poet to another. I want to avoid that saggy hessian sack of a word, ‘community’, but there’s no ignoring that New Zealand poets work within an intimate, interconnected world.         

10.  New Zealand poems are shaped by . . . well . . . New Zealand. The beach, for example. The edge we must all cross to get in or out. Our wild frontier, still mercifully unowned by the big hotel and the paying guest. It’s the liminal space between earth and water, like the old riddles, neither solid nor fluid, the animated space with its own hypnotic rhythm of wave and tide where thoughts settle and poems can rise to the surface. In this collection, Anna Jackson draws us at a steady tread across the sand to the contemplation of evolution and apocalypse in her luminous ‘Late Swim’. There is James Brown’s perfect wordplay in ‘Waiheke’ and Therese Lloyd’s walk with Eddie Vedder and the vortex that, like one of Brent Wong’s phantasms, takes solid shape within the familiar scene as the dream reaches the ultimate letter, the calligraphic perfection of the ampersand where ‘e’ and ‘t’ are fused as one. 

Sam Duckor Jones’s extraordinary evocation of despair and hope, ‘Regeneration’, finds its perfect objective correlative in the bush. Owen Marshall’s stroppy bugger of a dog barks hauntingly for release in a southern landscape. Erik Kennedy experiences epiphany in ‘Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show’. Rugby and war conflate to superb effect in the mud-cracked, mud-punked music of David Eggleton’s Game’.  Bernadette Hall creates a glorious amalgam of fire and water from hot pool, women with their candles by the Clutha and a ginger tom. Poems are set in this distinctive place, whether wild or in the towns and cities where most of us live and the small places between, or they regard with a degree of detachment the bit that lies beyond the beach: Vienna, say, or London or New York or in the flickering cellphone scrolling of Doc Drumheller’s ‘Guangzhou City Haiku'. 

11.  New Zealand poems are above all else, beautiful. Just that. The perfection of that sequence of simple statements in Lynley Edmeades’s Because’, or those ‘small bald monks’ in Emma Neale’s ‘So Buttoned Up’, or the superb timing with which the exuberance of Richard Reeve’s ‘Dog with its head out a window’ slams into the final line and that tiny figure like Brueghel’s Icarus, the ‘dangler on a distant ledge’.  Or Chris Tse’s wonderful teasing with erasure and the notion of the self in ‘The compulsive liar’s autobiography’. There is the lyrical beauty of Sophie van Waardenberg’s ‘Schön’ and Sue Wootton’s lovely dancing word play around birth and nurture in ‘As it is on Earth’.   

I have been so very lucky to have been able to spend a year reading so many of this country’s poems all at once.  Thank you to Chris Price for the invitation to do so, and to Clare Moleta for making it possible, to Katie Hardwick-Smith and to the IIML. And to the poets, publishers and editors who are making these challenging, disturbing, uplifting, beautiful things, word by word.   

Fiona Farrell

Fiona Farrell publishes poetry, fiction, drama and non-fiction. Her poetry has been short listed for the New Zealand Book Awards and widely anthologised. Her first novel won the New Zealand Book Awards while four later novels have been shortlisted for that award: five of her novels have also been longlisted for the International Dublin IMPAC Awards. Her plays include Chook Chook, which remains one of Playmarket New Zealand’s most popular and frequently requested scripts. Her non-fiction work, The Villa at the Edge of the Empire, and its fictional twin, Decline and Fall on Savage Street, a history of this country through the twentieth century prompted by the shock of the 2010/2011 Christchurch earthquakes and the city’s demolition/reconstruction, have been described as ‘indispensable’ and ‘a wonderful piece of art.’ She has received numerous awards, including the Menton Mansfield Fellowship, the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction in 2007 and in 2012 the ONZM for Services to Literature.