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This is the third year I’ve looked at how many female New Zealand poets have had books published in New Zealand compared with the number of male poets.  And for three years in a row, men have outnumbered women.  Here’s a little table with the number of books.  The percentages at the bottom are the proportion of poetry books by women over the three year period compared with poetry books by men.

Year Number of books by female poets Number of books by male poets Number of joint books Total books for the year
2008 32 55 1 88
2009 32 42 74
2010 35 49 84
99 146 1 246
40.2% 59.3% 0.4%

So, of every ten books, about 4 are by women and 6 by men.  (The joint publication was Alistair and Meg Campbell’s excellent book of love poems).  Here’s the link to last year’s post.

I wondered if I’d see any difference if I looked at the number of pages of published poetry by gender.  (This excludes journals and magazines; it’s just books.)  There’s not much difference, at least not for 2010.  It works out at 42% of poetry pages written by women; 58% by men.

Thanks to the Journal of Commonwealth Literature for the lists of published poetry books.

Does it matter?  Well I rather think it does.  I expect a nation’s literature to reflect the diversity of its population and a forty/sixty split isn’t quite cutting it.  I suspect the ethnicity stats wouldn’t stack up either, but I don’t know enough about the published poets to know how they would identify themselves.  Another project, another time.

Possible reasons for the lack of gender balance:
Men are writing more poetry? (seems unlikely)
Men are more likely to submit their work for publication?
Editors are more inclined to publish male poets?
There’s a historical factor skewing the figures, with older established poets more likely to be male (I’m thinking folk like J K Baxter here, as well as living poets).

Who knows?  In the meantime, for more excellent poetry by people of a variety of genders and nationalities, have a look at the Tuesday Poem site where a jointly written global birthday poem is unfolding as we speak!

Mark Stephenson is a Wellington writer whose first novel No Second Chance has just been published by Steele Roberts.  No Second Chance is the story of Anna, who arrives in Wellington in 1947 as a survivor of the holocaust.  As well as being a story of survival, courage and betrayal, it’s also a story of love and hope.  Anna forges a new life in a new place, but the past is always with her.

Mark grew up in the United Kingdom but moved to New Zealand in 1985 to work as a junior doctor in Invercargill.  He has lived in Wellington since 1989 where he works as a GP and writes part time. He lives with his partner, a daughter and two dogs.  Mark’s short stories have been published in JAAM, Takahe, New Idea, Viola Beadleton’s Compendium of Seriously Silly and Astoundingly Amazing Stories and Washington Square.

Recently I interviewed Mark about his beautifully written new novel, and about writing generally.

Mark, when I first met you, you were writing short stories.  What led you to write a longer work? 

Yeah, this novel started life as a short story, which was published in Takahe way back yonks ago. For some reason I just kept thinking about the characters and the reasons behind their actions. I gradually filled in the details of their lives and fitted them into a historical context, which wasn’t there in the original story, or not so much of it. Then I started thinking about the next generation, and the next one after that, and the consequences for them as well. So it became a story of how historical events can break apart a life, and a family, and eventually how the characters might come back together again.

What was different about writing a novel, compared to writing short stories?

It took a lot longer…!

But seriously, it’s easier in a way as long as you can stick to the task. You can develop characters and themes and plot along the way whereas in a short story it all has to be done in a few sentences, or words even. A short story is way easier to finish though.

You’ve chosen a very challenging subject.  What made you decide to write Anna’s story?  Is she based on a real person?

She is not based on a real person but some of the events I’ve written about have certainly happened to people. The situation and conditions in the camps are real but the characters and the way they interact in the novel are imaginary. I’ve been interested in those stories of survival since I was a teenager for some reason and have read some historical accounts. Many survivors keep their stories to themselves till they are much older, and some things probably go with them to the grave. I have often wondered what it would be like to survive, come back to a ‘normal’ life and how your mind would deal with it.

One of the most dramatic events in the book occurs in New Zealand, late in Anna’s life. This is based on an actual happening that occurred not far from here. It set me thinking… why would anybody do that? That’s really where the story came from – I started to fill in the gaps.

Do you have a regular writing routine?  How do you juggle writing with your work as a GP?

Well, kind of. I have a regular bit of time off in the week when I write. Sometimes I spend most of it staring at the blank screen.

You held an NZSA mentorship while you were writing No Second Chance.  How do you think that helped you?

It helped me a lot, basically by getting a lot of feedback on the text and how I was writing, seeing the recurring faults in my writing. I realised I had still a lot of work to do on the manuscript even though I thought it was already well drafted. I learnt a great deal. My mentor was encouraging while being honest about the bad bits, and there always are bad bits. She also praised the good bits, which I enjoyed more, strangely enough.

What are your writing plans now?  Will you stick to novels?

At the moment I’m sticking to novels. I’ve written a draft of another one, possibly a second draft. It’s very different, though also historical, this one is set in sixteenth century Aotearoa before European contact and has a teenage boy as protagonist.

Finally, do you have any advice for first-time novellists?

I tend to think a lot and write little. I advise them to do the opposite.

No Second Chance  can be bought from  Steele Roberts and Unity Books, or any bookseller will order it for you if you ask.

You can read a sample of the writing at


Last year, I posted about a little survey I’d undertaken of publishers’ websites.  I looked at the gender of poets published in 2009 by AUP, VUP, Steele Roberts, Seraph Press, Earl of Seacliffe Workshop, Cape Catley, Titus Books and OUP (the ones that sprang to mind).   I was interested to discover that, of the 31 books I found, 18 (58%) were by women and 13 (42%) by men.

Well.  Subsequently, I discovered that the Journal of Commonwealth Literature very conveniently publishes (amongst other things) an annual round-up of all the poetry books published in New Zealand during the year.  This included publishers I hadn’t been aware of at the time, such as Soapbox Press.  Thanks to the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, I was able to get a much fuller picture. 

The real balance was the opposite to what I’d found: of 74 poetry books published in 2009, 42 (57%) were by men and 32 (43%) were by women.  Most of the presses I’d inadvertently excluded were small presses publishing one or two volumes apiece.  However, one publisher (Kilmog Press, which makes truly beautiful handmade books) published 12 volumes in 2009 – surpassing all other publishers on the list, for which they are to be commended.  Only one of these books was by a woman, though, which skewed the results significantly.  (Maybe Kilmog Press will have an entirely different profile for 2010, but the results aren’t available yet, so we will just have to wait and see.)

Focusing on the three major poetry publishers in New Zealand (with 8 books apiece): Auckland University Press and Victoria University Press each published 5 women and 3 men; and Steele Roberts had 4 of each.

So how does all this stack up against the previous year?  2008 looks a little different for the big three: AUP published 2 women and 6 men, Steele Roberts  5 women and 7 men; VUP 3 of each.   But if those two years are typical, the gender balance looks as though it might even out over time. 

The other publisher with significant numbers in 2008 was the Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop (1 woman, 4 men), followed by Headworx (1 woman, 2 men & 1 joint publication by a woman and a man); Original Books (2 of each) and Soapbox Press (1 woman, 3 men).  The grand total for 2008 was 32 books by women (36%) and 55 by men (63%), with the remaining 1% the joint publication (by Meg Campbell and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell).

What can we conclude from this?  Female poets are well represented overall with the major publishers; male poets seem somewhat over-represented with the smaller presses.  Is this because small presses are more likely to be run by men, who prefer poetry by men?  Are men more confident about putting together a collection and submitting it?  Are women more likely to do MAs in Creative Writing* and therefore more likely to approach a university press?  Who knows.  You can expect another exciting instalment of this next time I get my spreadsheets going.

* I rather think they are, which raises another interesting question – why?  Do male poets think they know it all already?  Are female poets more open to the idea that they might still have a lot to learn?  Are men more likely to take the alternative, small press route?  I think there’s a thesis in here somewhere and if someone would like to pay my mortgage for the next few years, I’d be happy to take it on….

I’m feeling very international at the moment.  I have a short story in the new online journal Anomalous (based in the US), two poems in the New Zealand feature of the online International Literary Quarterly, another poem in UK-based print journal Magma and one in the Australian print journal etchings.  Some of it is work I submitted 18 months ago, but somehow it’s all appearing in the same week.

The Anomalous connection came about courtesy of the Tuesday Poem.  Last December, the Tuesday poets paired up and swapped poems with each other, and I was lucky enough to be paired with the wonderful American poet Melissa Green.  An Anomalous editor (Cat Parnell) read my poem on Melissa’s blog and asked if I had anything else.  Anomalous also features recordings of the writers reading their work.  My story, Tattooed Ladies, is here.  Or you can watch a great little 30 second clip of the entire journal here.  Anomalous describes itself as “a non-profit press dedicated to the diffusion of writing in the forms it can take”.

The International Literary Quarterly is in the process of publishing more than a hundred NZ writers over the next couple of months.  I’m part of the third instalment, alongside Tim Jones, Janet Charman, Robin Fry, Sonia Yelich and many others.  My poems are here.  The NZ literary showcase also features NZ artworks and is well worth dipping into.

Magma is a longstanding UK journal, packed with great poetry and interesting articles.  I am in Magma 49, the ‘Build it up & knock it down’ issue, which sports a lovely digger on the cover.  (I always thought it would be fun to drive one, but I have no doubt it would end up stuck in a swamp, like the time I was in charge of some sort of sandbag compacting machine).

Etchings is based in Melbourne and published by Ilura Press.  The issue I am in is etchings 9: Love & Something.  The cover image is by Adam Elliot, the clay animator responsible for that great little movie ‘Mary and Max‘ about  the friendship between a little Australian girl and a reclusive American man.

Whew!  So much reading material.  Got to be a good thing.

We’ve just got back from a trip to Greymouth and Christchurch (booked well before the earthquake). We took the Tranz-scenic over the southern alps with a small group of friends and had a great time.  On the way over, everything was frosted with snow

that strange halo effect is my camera lens reflected in the train window

and on the way back the next day, much of it had melted


Magic.  Greymouth has some great little cafes, like dp one (by the river) with its retro Formica tables and Frank’s (on the main drag), which often has live music (just not on the night we were there).

It was fun being snowed on on the way back, when they let us out for 5 minutes at Arthur’s Pass.

Arthur's Pass

Then it was back to Christchurch.  The centre of the city seemed in better shape than we had feared – the occasional pile of rubble, closed-off street or taped-off building, but overall, Christchurch is open for business and no doubt the retailers would be happy to see you.  But some of the outer suburbs are apparently in far worse shape, with thousands of homes expected to be demolished.  Clearly, the after-effects will ripple on for a long time to come.

One of the things I do to entertain myself is make spreadsheets.  Some people may find this sad, but frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.  Recently I conducted an unscientific little survey of single-author poetry books published in New Zealand last year, looking at the websites of several New Zealand publishers (AUP, VUP, Steele Roberts, Seraph Press, Earl of Seacliffe Workshop, Cape Catley, Titus Books and OUP).  For each book, I noted whether the poet was male or female and whether he or she was a “new” poet (ie hadn’t had a volume of poetry published before).

 The list of publishers is not comprehensive and no doubt there are other books that ought to be in my spreadsheet.  Also, not all the publishers listed the year of publication on their website, so there may be one or two books on the list that properly belong in another year.  Still, I think I’ve got a reasonable sample.

 And I found the results rather interesting.  Of the 31 books I found, 18 (58%) were by women and 13 by men (42%).  New poets accounted for 11 of the books (35% of the total) – quite encouraging I thought.  And of these 11 new poets, 8 were women (73% of new poets) and 3 were men (27%).

 One of the reasons I embarked on this exercise was because I’d been looking at a recent anthology of Australian women’s poetry (Motherlode – looks great, by the way and thinking about similar British anthologies and wondering where the anthologies of women’s poetry in New Zealand were.  And I thought, maybe we don’t really need a separate anthology because female poets are getting published just as often as male poets here (not that I’m suggesting the Australian anthology was simply an exercise in affirmative action – I understand it was more about collecting poems concerning motherhood from a female perspective). 

 In any case, I thought I’d have a look to see if women were as likely as men to get published in New Zealand.  And it seems we are.  Last year, anyway, women were a little more likely to be published, especially amongst new poets. 

 Would I get the same results if I counted pages or words rather than volumes?  Possibly not.  The books by male poets included a James K Baxter selection and a substantial Vincent O’Sullivan collection, which could have tipped the balance the other way.  

 So what’s going on?  Is it that women are writing more poetry?  I’m not sure about that.  Open mic sessions, poetry slams and other poetry readings seem to draw respectable numbers of blokes on to the stage.  Poetry journals have no shortage of poems by male authors. 

 Is it that women more likely to put those books together and send them out in the first place?  Poetry-writing classes seem to be dominated by women, so maybe men and women are just taking a different approach to the whole enterprise.  (I’m generalising, I know). 

 It would be interesting to repeat the poetry book survey for, say, 1999 and 1989 and see if the gender balance has been shifting over time.  It would also be interesting to do the same thing for poetry published in other countries.  (I might even give that a go sometime). 

 Was 2009 an atypical year?  Will those percentages reverse in 2010?  I really couldn’t guess – but I’d love to know what others think.



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August 2020

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