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Looking forward to reading in Palmerston North with these wonderful Cuba Press poets on Tuesday night 6:30pm 27th October 2020 at the Palmerston North City Library. I will be reading from my new book, Reading the Signs.

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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.


poetry books x ethnicity 2008 - 2010

poetry books x ethnicity 2008 – 2012


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 and I’m grateful to Rebecca Pilcher for providing the 2012 information.


The seven seas aren’t what we thought they would be
packed to the gunnels with rum and rebellion.
Our tall ships fly home, flat tack in the wind.

We’ll alight and seek life in the tussocky rocks,
seek fewmets and footprints and niblets of spoor.
With no forest for shelter we’ll bivouac in the wind.

Tough trees lie flat; they clutch at the cliffs,
the grasses grow grasping and desperate —
nothing withstands the impact of the wind.

We grab hands and race for the deepest cave
hoping to lie in the light of our warmth
with the ghost of our hope left intact by the wind.

But gone means gone — we can’t sail back on the wind.

The black dog’s ears go flat in the wind.

[First published in The Ghazal Page, 2012(1).]


Mary Cresswell is a poet and science editor who lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast.  Originally from Los Angeles, her writing has been published widely in New Zealand, Australian, Canadian, US and UK literary journals. Her poetry collection Trace Fossils (first runner-up for the inaugural 2008 Kathleen Grattan award) was published by Steele Roberts in 2011 and her collection of satiric verse, Nearest and Dearest, in 2009.  Mary was also one of four poets who co-authored Millionaire’s Shortbread (University of Otago, 2003).

This week’s poem is a ghazal (sounds like guzzle) – originally an ancient Persian form.

The Guardian has this to say:

“The strict ghazal is composed of five or more regular couplets. The couplet is called a sher, and must be self-contained. The second line of each ends with a refrain of one or a few words, known as the radif. This is preceded by the rhyme, the qaafiya. In the first couplet both lines end in the rhyme and refrain, so the rhyme scheme is AA BA CA, etc. The last sher contains the poet’s signature, his name or a variant thereof.”

Modern poets writing in English have experimented with the form (Mary’s is a tercet ghazal with a deliberately empty line in the last stanza) but it’s probably fair to say that most consist of self-contained couplets, often exploring themes of love and mysticism.

Mary is editing the next issue of The Ghazal Page  (see her Call for Submissions which I posted recently).

More Tuesday poems here, where you can also watch the jointly written third birthday poem unfolding.

Ghazals are welcomed for a special challenge issue of The Ghazal Page (ed. Gene Doty) ( on the theme WATER. Guest editor for this issue is Wellington poet Mary Cresswell; 15 April – 31 May 2013 submission dates. Please use the journal’s contact link (see below).

Mary says:

Look for inspiration from water, wherever it is, whatever it’s doing and who/what it’s doing it to – storms, glaciers, ships and steam engines, boiling into an undersea trench, springing from desert rock, falling as snow. Big surf. Tears. Dark streaks down the sides of subway tunnels. If water could speak we might know why it’s always moving… Perhaps use water-words as a radif – perhaps tercet (rather than couplet) ghazals – consider Arabic as well as Persian forms. Ghazals can be unpublished or published (give details of previous publication as well as permission for use).

To prime your skill with the ghazal form, check through the excellent collection of essays and articles on the The Ghazal Page website. Also see Carol Rumens’ Guardian article, introducing ghazals by Mimi Khalvati. To see how the form can vary, read Natasha Trethewey’s ‘Miscegenation’ ( ) and Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mother Mourns’ ( ).

Please submit ( information/submitting.html) between 15 April and 31 May 2013, and follow the journal submission instructions. Subject line: “Water issue”.


I’ve read a lot of poetry over 2009.  Here are some of the books that have made their way into my collection and enriched my year (in no particular order): 

‘Africa: Kabbo, Mantis and the Porcupine’s Daughter’ by Alistair Paterson (Puriri Press) – a long poem that explores humanity’s African origins.  Click here for a useful review by Terry Locke). 

Here’s an extract from ‘Africa’: 

They’re alive
            our ancestors are alive 

they live through us & yet
         there’s a sense in which 

what’s happened seems
         never to have happened 

in which thinking about it
          what’s gone, what’s over
is like looking at a church
        examining it (the church) 

from a distance, admiring
        the lift & luft of the spire…” 

‘The Rocky  Shore’ by Jenny Bornholdt (Victoria University Press) – long autobiographical poems, which sparked an interesting discussion about what constitutes poetry between Iain Sharp (writing in Landfall) and Joanna Preston (on her blog).  Personally, I take a pretty liberal view regarding what is and isn’t poetry.  (I wrote about this last year. )   I’m more interested in whether it’s writing that I enjoy (and I always enjoy Jenny Bornholdt’s).  

‘Moose Beetle Swallow’ by Estonian surrealist poet Andres Ehin (Southword Editions) – beautifully translated by Irish poet Patrick Cotter (see Patrick Cotter’s website).  There’s a review here from Penniless Press.  One thing I found very interesting about this collection was how the translations differ from other translations of the same poems.  Consider this opening extract of ‘To be a Dog Apartment’ 

“to be a dog-apartment with three barking rooms
with a snout-bathroom
where one tap dribbles cold
and the other hot slobber” 

and Patrick Cotter’s version: 

Imagine an apartment made of dog
three rooms of bark, a bathroom of snout

 the cold tap dribbles, the hot tap slobbers” 

Both are great, but each paints a very different picture. 

 ‘Making Music’ by Patrick Cotter (Three Spires Press).  Quirky, fun in that dark way, full of angels. 

‘Nearest and Dearest’ by Mary Cresswell (Steele Roberts) – poems full of satire and humour. (I interviewed Mary on this blog). 

‘My Iron Spine’ by Helen Rickerby (Headworx).  Includes very entertaining poems about Katherine Mansfield, Joan of Arc, Emily Dickinson and other famous women. 

‘through windows’ by Susana Lei’ataua (Steele Roberts).  I saw Susana perform this as a one-woman show at Bats a few years ago.  It’s based on her time in New York and has the sounds of the subway running through it: 

                                    “I am a train 

tearing through neighbourhoods 

this and that 

this and that 

this and that 

side of the state line.” 

(to be continued…and apologies for the spacing – I just can’t get it to work) 

Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Wellington-based poet Mary Cresswell. Mary is currently engaged in a “virtual book tour” to promote her new book Nearest and Dearest (Steele Roberts), an illustrated book of satiric poetry. On a virtual book tour, the author appears for brief interviews on a range of blogs rather than visiting different places—a much more environmentally friendly approach. Mary has already been interviewed by Tim Jones


Mary lives on the Kapiti Coast, though she’s also spent time living in the US, Germany and Japan. She holds a degree in history and English literature from Stanford University in California, and works as a freelance science editor and proofreader. Her first poetry book was the joint publication Millionaire’s Shortbread (University of Otago Press, 2003) with Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Macpherson, and Kerry Hines.

Mary, you often use particular forms for your poetry. I enjoyed the sonnets in Nearest and Dearest such as “The Rake’s Wife’s Progress” and “The Office Manager Addresses her Mirror” (a wonderful parody of Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” which begins “Shall I wear the Gucci scarf today/ It’s far more lovely and more corporate” – see Tim’s blog for the full poem). You also make good use of rhyme schemes in your book. What is it about form and rhyme that appeals to you?

Early brainwashing, I expect. I had poetry recited to me long before I could read. I finished university in 1958, when modernism was still modern; the long gap between then and when I started reading (much less writing) serious poems again meant that I am ignorant of most late twentieth-century poetics. Free verse doesn’t come comfortably to me. I can start something in free verse, but I end up trying to link elements to each other: perhaps alliteration, perhaps changing words so the same/similar vowel sound wanders along through the poem, perhaps dragging a whole line down through the stanzas (“The Pass at Grasmere”).

But I don’t think I have any favourite forms that I tend to default to. I read poetry as much as I write it, and I’m always pleased to come across a new way of linking words, or to be reminded of an old way. Poetry is very much a spectator sport, I think.

I’m interested in your writing process or writing habit. Do you set aside regular time for writing? Is there a special place you go to or is it something that can happen anywhere?

I try to write something, anything, first thing in the morning but often I don’t. I read something every day, always. There are a couple of web sites I subscribe to: (generally trad) and Poetry Daily (; contemporary). Those two cover a lot of weird and wonderful territory, and I am sure there are more places. One way or another, they get me thinking.

I write in my study—on the computer—drink vast amounts of coffee. When I’m stuck, I go for a long walk, put the whole mess out of my mind, and read a thriller. It doesn’t bother me at all to put a poem aside, to forget about it.

How do you think your poetry has changed and developed over the years? What has led to those changes?

It’s only about a dozen years, but yes, there have been changes. I am more prepared to play with form and invent forms, rather than follow a set recipe, than I used to be. This is sometimes driven by the content— “Bigfoot in Love” in N&D stomps along in trochees (STOMP stomp), throws an iambic paddy (stomp STOMP) and then returns in more trochees to a predictable life as a control freak; I wanted to illustrate inflexibility. I admire the US poet laureate, Californian Kay Ryan, who is extraordinarily laconic but still incorporates an elegant variety of rhyme variations throughout her poems. Paul Muldoon and Thom Gunn are great to read, if you like form and like to watch people working with it happily … Marilyn Hacker, Marie Ponsot (both from the US), P. K. Page (Canada). Harryette Mullen (US) surfs meaning in a wonderful way. They’ve all been an education to me.

You publish widely overseas as well as in New Zealand. Have you noticed any differences in editors’ tastes? Are some poems more likely to appeal to an editor from the United States than one from New Zealand?

Yes, but I think this is partly because the US scene is so much bigger: they have space for a wide variety of editors. I would think more than twice about sending an experimental (visual or words) or satiric poem or a parody to most New Zealand journals, and my impression is that formal poetry is only beginning to come back.

And I don’t know the extent to which editorial decisions are driven by funding, how editors feel obliged to accommodate particular points of view about poetry/art/whatever in order to survive. I was terribly lucky as a science editor, in that my main job was to facilitate getting good information to people who needed it. I worried about the budget, but I didn’t have to worry about metaphysical issues.

Can you tell us about the illustrations in Nearest and Dearest?

The illustrations were done by prize-winning freelance illustrator Nikki Slade Robinson, who was suggested by Roger Steele and worked directly from the text of the poems. I love what she’s done: when I have finished writing a poem, I tend to think well, that’s finished and then send it to a journal, but Nikki has drawn out and then illustrated a personality from the various poems. And this was always more than I had seen in the poems, an additional dimension.

Nikki has been an illustrator since 1989 and has illustrated many children’s books, as well as illustrating for the corporate, public and advertising sectors. She’s also illustrated books by poet Glenn Colquhoun. 2009 saw the release of her first book as an author: children’s book That’s not Junk! published by Penguin.

To find out more about Nikki’s work you can visit her website

Finally, do you have good acceptance/ rejection stories you’d like to share?

Actually, I don’t. I usually send editors a choice of poems, rather than putting all my hopes into one. When an editor rejects the lot, I usually feel, oh, well, I’m just not their cup of tea and start thinking of somewhere else. There’s the occasional editor who speaks for the universe when turning me down, tells me loud and clear that Olympus simply isn’t hiring tea-ladies. That’s really offensive, and I try to go for a very long walk on the beach when that happens. A few editors will tell me why my work doesn’t suit, and that is welcome, a rare event. … Acceptances I can live with!


I can recommend Nearest & Dearest as a fine antidote to the recession. You can order copies here:

or here:

and read more about Mary here:,%20Mary

For Wellingtonians of a poetic bent, this coming week is going to be busy! Monday 20 July has ‘Best NZ Poems’ at Te Papa at 12:15 and the regular NZ Poetry Society meeting at 7:30pm at the Thistle Inn, featuring Lynn Davidson

Friday 24 July is, of course, Montana Poetry Day (yay!) and there are poetry treats all over New Zealand. Check out details at Unity Books has a great line-up of local poets reading at lunchtime – unfortunately I can’t make it, but I’m hoping to get along to the Newtown Public Library’s Open Mic session at 6:30pm. (oops – if you read this earlier, you would have seen an incorrect time – I’m told it really is 6:30pm) Unity also has a launch of Diana Bridge’s new book at 6pm.

Also, look out for Mary Cresswell’s virtual book tour later this month. I will be interviewing Mary on this blog about her latest publication Nearest and Dearest.



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November 2020

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