I’ve taken to calling 2014 my “Tale of Two Cities” year. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. My mother died in April; work turned to shark-infested custard; there’ve been family illnesses. It’s been one of the hardest year of my life.
But also these things happened: I had a magical three-week residency at New Pacific Studio in the Wairarapa; I had two books accepted for publication (a novel and a poetry collection, both of which should be emerging next May); I got a great new job; I had a lovely week with my friend Nicola in Glink’s Gully; I got a prize for public management (the Master’s degree I graduated with last year); and through all the chaos, I had Peter looking after me.
Roll on 2015. I’m hoping it’s going to be less of a roller-coaster and I hope it’s a great year for everyone. Happy New Year.
One of Airini’s poems from the collection, ‘Introduction’ is this week’s Tuesday Poem. It’s a great collection, as much Airini’s own story as Neil’s. I interviewed her about the book.
As you say in ‘Dear Neil Roberts’, you were born after Neil died. How did you hear about him and what interested you in writing about him?
I first heard about Neil Roberts as a teenager, via a friend of mine who had joined an anarchist group in Auckland. I was always fascinated and upset by the event, and I recall trying to re-imagine it as an accident. It seemed too awful to me that Neil had deliberately blown himself up. Later, I met people in the anarchist movement who had known Neil or who had been part of the original Punks’ Picnics in the 1980s and 1990s, on Neil Roberts Day. The event was always there in my consciousness. I decided to write about it when doing some thinking about Whanganui history. It was 2011 and I realised the 30th anniversary was nigh, and thought it was a good time to use poetry to re-examine the event and how it has subsequently been portrayed in the media and the history books.
What sort of reaction have you had from people when they hear about the book? Have many people heard of him?
The reactions I have had have been largely understanding. I think people recognise that I haven’t set out to glorify acts of violence, but to look at who this young man was and why he was moved to do such a thing. New Zealand anarchists immediately know what you are talking about when you mention Neil. People I have spoken to who are old enough to remember the event in the news in 1982 have all recalled it happening, and some remember exactly where they were at the time. People younger than myself are less likely to have heard of it.
Have you had any contact with Neil’s family and if so, how did they feel about it?
I was unsuccessful in tracking down members of Neil’s family. I feel that I should have made more effort to do this. Neil instantly became a public figure, and I think there is an awareness that this event is going to be talked about in a public arena. But I would have liked to notify any surviving family members, in case the material presented difficulties for them. As a poet you assume no-one is going to come across your work, but this isn’t always the case. My understanding is that Neil’s family distanced themselves from the event at the time. I am not sure how they responded to the re-surfacing of the story in various forms, over the years.
You’ve clearly done a lot of background research. Was there much variation in how people saw him?
I made a decision early on to focus on secondary sources. This was for two main reasons: firstly, I was more interested in how our society remembers and portrays events, and so written accounts were of particular interest. I knew I would never know who Neil really was, and I felt it would be inappropriate to try to encapsulate him as a person. This would have involved a certain amount of fictionalising and I felt uncomfortable about that. Secondly, interviews can be intrusive and I didn’t want to cause stress to people. I had heard from another researcher that there were people who didn’t want to be contacted. To my mind this is perfectly understandable. I think people in the anarchist community are used to being viewed with suspicion, having informants pose as friends and fellow activists, and so on.
From the accounts I read, and from the limited discussions I had with people who knew Neil, there was actually very little variation. Instead there was a consensus that he was a friendly, intelligent, gentle young man who had everything going for him.
This book is your own story as well as being a story about Neil. What connections do you see between your life and his?
I chose to use a personal approach because it was a way in. It was difficult and confrontational material to explore. It also seemed appropriate for a work of poetry. There is a direct connection between Neil and myself in that Neil was the person who brought anarchism to light for a friend of mine. In turn this friend had a strong influence on the development of my politics. There were also other threads: I grew up in Whanganui, and moved back here around the time of beginning work on this book. There is a poem in the book “The thing is Neil, you are all of us.” “All of us” specifically refers to the anarchist community. Although we wouldn’t all commit such an act, I think we have all experienced the overwhelming sense of frustration and hopelessness, of being up against a powerful and violent institution, with limited resources for change.
How is this book different from your previous work?
For a long time I had the idea that overt politics were best avoided in my poetry. On beginning this book, I felt it was something I had to do, and that I had to let go of that cringe factor. I felt like I had nothing to lose. It is often said that politics is out of fashion in New Zealand poetry. In some ways that is true and in other ways, it isn’t. There are a lot of contemporary poets (from a variety of backgrounds) whose work is strongly political.
This book is also different in that it takes a unified theme, and aims at wholeness. It is designed to be read from start to finish as a single entity, rather than dipped into as a collection of poems. There is a kind of a narrative in there. In some ways it could also be described as a verse epistle or verse essay.
Tell me about the particular form you’ve followed for the poems in the book.
Dear Neil Roberts is written in quatrains. The form seemed to fit, and I began to write to the four-line stanza. It is not an arbitrary lineation of what would otherwise be prose. It is full of rhyme and off-rhyme, and there is a poem in there with a set rhyme scheme and accentual meter. I have become really interested in form and I want to play around more with received forms. This is a matter of inner compulsion rather than any specific reactionary stance in regard to poetry.
What’s next? Do you have other projects in train at the moment?
I am working on a creative writing PhD at the moment. This involves a creative project and I have chosen to write narrative poems about the Whanganui river region. It hasn’t been easy! Again, I am looking for an approach that doesn’t seek to encapsulate. I am one person, and a Pakeha, and it would be totally inappropriate to say “I am going to write the history of the river.” I am mostly focusing on the human relationship to the environment, and how the river catchment has been damaged since the 1840s.
Thanks to poet Mary Cresswell, who has done a bit of sleuthing, I can add a postscript to my post about Poetry & Gender in NZ Publishing. Mary has looked at all the poetry books published in New Zealand over the 5 years 2008-2012 and noted which ethnicity the poets identify with, based mainly on their author/publisher webpages. So it may not be 100% accurate, but I think it’s a good estimate.
Apologies for the poor quality of the graph below – there’s a clearer version if you click on the link underneath it. What it shows is that, over the five year period, 90% of the poetry publishing pie went to Pākehā/European poets, 4% to Pasifika poets, 3% to Māori poets and 2% to Asian poets. Middle Eastern and African poets accounted for 0.4% of books respectively. When you compare this to proportions in the New Zealand population (70% Pākehā; 14% Māori; 11% Asian, 7% Pasifika and 1% Middle Eastern/Latin American/African – figures from Stats NZ Census 2013) it’s not looking very representative. I do think it’s important for a country’s literature to reflect the diversity of voices in its population.
In a comment on the ‘Poetry and Gender’ post, Tina Makereti said that her research for her PhD “also identified a lack of any real indigenous literary studies in New Zealand (no courses at tertiary level, limited commitment to indigenous literatures in high schools), and few Māori literature scholars. I think if the commitment were there from the universities, and Māori saw themselves represented in the study of literature, the numbers would increase.” So – universities, high schools, publishers – over to you!
PS: I should have mentioned that, as with the ‘Poetry & Gender’ data, the source for titles and authors, etc is The Journal of Commonwealth Literature
Just a wee reminder that this is coming up next Tuesday. It’s for a good cause and everyone gets a 20% discount off the Recommended Retail Price on the night!
Date: Tuesday, 4th November
Time: 5.30 p.m.
Place: The Grand, 69 – 71 Courtenay Place (upstairs)
Here’s the list of contents and further information from the editors:
‘Sweet as’ is a typically New Zealand term meaning okay, cool, better than good, or even awesome. However, the stories in this collection are not all ‘sweet’ in the traditional sense. New Zealand is a country of light — both strong and bush-dappled — but it also has a dark side.
These short stories speak to us of the diverse world we live in. They take us on a journey, or offer a glimpse into another’s life. Some show the struggles, tough questions and challenging situations people face. Some stories are sweet or humorous, while others are quirky or just plain entertaining. They provide us with a snapshot of life in New Zealand and how New Zealanders experience life overseas.
For this collection, we sought contributions from New Zealand citizens or permanent residents. This gives a breadth of story lines — ‘sweet as’ in their variety and quality. Our aim was to continue one of New Zealand’s finest traditions: its strong culture of reading and writing, especially in the area of short fiction.
Links to more information:
eBook and book orders:
For more information email us at: SweetAsShortStories@gmail.com
Since 2008, I’ve been looking at all the poetry books published in New Zealand each year and reporting on the gender balance. That first year, a little over a third (36%) of the poetry books published were by female authors, but there has been significant change over the five year period and women are now responsible for almost half (47%) of NZ poetry books. Here is a graph showing how things have changed.
The quality’s not great, sorry. For a better version, click on this link: poetry & gender graph
Another way of looking at it is that men (green in the graphs) were getting almost two thirds of the poetry publishing pie in 2008 and this was down to just over half in 2012 (mmm – pie).
Click here for a clearer version: poetry pies.pdf
(Disclaimer: yes, I realise this is a very binary way of looking at things, but if anyone on the list is intersex or does not see themselves as either male or female, I wasn’t aware of it. I have made assumptions around gender according to whether the poets look male or female to me or have male/female-sounding names.)
Now, I don’t know the ethnicity of all the poets published in 2012, but out of the 55 poetry books published, I only noticed one that I know was written by a Māori poet, two written by Pasifika poets and none by Asian poets. So what’s with that? There are obviously plenty of Māori poets, as evidenced by AUP’s Puna Wai Korero - An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English. I look forward to seeing a body of poetry that better reflects our population make-up.
What is perhaps most alarming about the trends over the past few years is how few poetry books were published in 2012 – 55, compared with 88 in 2008.
Better version here: Poetry books
The three main publishers of poetry in New Zealand remain Steele Roberts (13 titles in 2012, similar to the 12 published in 2008), Victoria University Press (12 titles in 2012 compared with 6 in 2008) and Auckland University Press (5 titles in 2012 compared with 8 in 2008).
My source, as usual, is The Journal of Commonwealth Literature (December 2013 48: 541-553, and . The list includes a handful of books by New Zealand poets that were published in other countries. Thanks to Rebecca Pilcher for helping me source the latest information.
I realise I’ve been very quiet on the blogging front recently, largely because I’ve been beavering away on a novel – more on that in the coming months. But another thing I did recently was to contribute a short story to a great initiative – ‘Sweet As: Contemporary Short Stories by New Zealanders’, an anthology to raise funds for the IHC. My late sister Joanne was intellectually disabled (she had Sanfilippo Syndrome) so I had a bit to do with the IHC while growing up and I’m pleased to be able to do something to support them.
There’s an impressive line-up of authors in the anthology, including Frances Cherry, Maggie Rainey-Smith, Wes Lee, Jo Randerson, Lawrence Patchett, Kate Mahony, Vivienne Joseph and many more. Hope to see some of you at the launch:
Date: Tuesday, 4th November
Time: 5.30 p.m.
Place: The Grand, 69 – 71 Courtenay Place (upstairs)
Thanks and congratulations to editors Wendy Moore and Blair Polly for making this happen.
I’m very excited to have a poem included in this fine anthology from Random House: Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (eds Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe & Harry Ricketts). It’s in a lovely-to-hold cloth binding and has a great range of NZ poets – from the well-known and well-loved (such as Fleur Adcock, Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare, James K Baxter, Jenny Bornholdt, Bill Manhire, Greg O’Brien and Janet Frame) to more recent poets like Chris Tse and Joan Fleming.
Any anthology is subjective and no doubt three different editors would have come up with a different selection. (Personally, I would have included Richard von Sturmer, Tim Jones, Helen Lehndorf and a bunch of others, but then again there’s no-one in the collection I’d want to leave out). Overall though, this feels pretty representative of New Zealand poetry as a whole, and New Zealand poets in general. And it’s good to see the smaller presses represented, like Headworx and Seraph Press. Well worth reading, I reckon!
I’m also very pleased to find myself rubbing shoulders with Bill Manhire on the Best American Poetry blog in a series about New Zealand poetry curated by Greg O’Brien. I’m looking forward to future instalments and seeing what Greg has to say about New Zealand poetry & poets.