NZ Poetry Shelf

Paula Green has started up regular publication of poems, reviews, and interviews with poets again on her generous blog. The relative silence of this blog lately makes me even more amazed at her energy. But then, as it takes me so long to feel happy with a draft poem these days, perhaps it’s no surprise I’m shirking ‘bloggery’: blogging would mean yet more eighteenth drafts to be disappointed in, to abandon, to tackle at from another angle. If you follow the link below to a poem I’ve been reworking on and off for 3 years (!), you’ll also find new interviews and poems from many other NZ writers. It’s a bright and healthy crop. I’ve just finished compiling the May issue of Landfall, my first as incoming editor, and this makes me very appreciative that Paula is also providing an outlet for new poetry. There was so much high quality work I couldn’t fit in to the upcoming issue: it underlined that we need as many avenues for recent work as we can get. I hope you enjoy the poem and get throughly addicted to Paula’s site too!  Monday Poem: Emma Neale’s ‘Called’

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The Space Between

Rhys.Cover.Print 3.32.17 pm copy

The young poet and journalist Rhys Brookbanks (1985-2011), has just had a booklet of his poetry and non-fiction work published by his family.  I taught Rhys in my rookie year running a poetry workshop at the University of Otago; he was killed in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, in his first week working for CTV.

A few years ago I wrote a fuller piece about him for Ka Mate ka Ora; but now The Space Between: To remember Rhys Brookbanks gives people a chance to see his early work. The booklet contains poetry, journalism, photos of the young Rhys and a short biography written by family. Rhys’s parents also asked me to write   a foreword for the publication; it was one of the toughest, and saddest commissions I’ve ever taken on.

There are still a few booklets available from the Brookbanks family. Any readers interested in purchasing a copy, can contact me here at this blog; I’ll forward details of the cost and how to order it. 

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Goose Pimples


Cover Modesty has just stripped off all its clothes and gone skinny-dipping. I much prefer to swim in a bathing suit. Or even to be wheeled down to the sea in a little changing caravan. But in this age of shrinking marketing budgets and overworked publicity staff, sometimes writers have to be bare-faced, bare-legged, and take the leap. Shyness – so retro, right?

I’m grateful to Barbara Larson for permission to post her response to the book here.

Billy Bird launch speech: Barbara Larson, 31 August, 2016

There’s a poem in Emma’s book Tender Machines – many of you here will know it – it’s called ‘Stoic’ and starts with:
‘We couldn’t cry about love
because you just have to get on with it
and of course there were the children.’
And it continues: ‘We couldn’t cry about a lot of things…’
When I first heard Emma read this startling and magnificent poem, and later read it for myself, I thought, wow, therein lies a novel.
And Billy Bird may just be that novel.
Billy Bird is at once familiar territory. The main characters, Iris and Liam, are young and hopeful and invite us into a story full of love and promise. They have a child they call Billy, and begin to live life dominated by the small boy, as one does. But then, as so often happens, life sideswipes them and suddenly they have another child to raise. An older boy – he’s all of six – and they lovingly embrace the child – he doesn’t make it easy – and for a while, it all looks as if things are going to be okay. Not perfect but okay.
Then the inexplicable happens causing this small, fragile family to fray at the seams. Iris becomes overly anxious, Liam withdraws into his man cave, and Billy, dear Billy, escapes the only way he knows how.
The novel is a brilliant and imaginative leap into a world where life is altered by forces outside our control, of being different, of being Billy, of learning to cope with enormous loss and the often dark gaping spaces that open between us.
Billy is an original. (Emma he’s truly a wonderful character).
He’s at once adorable, and alarmingly articulate, and smart, and inventive, yet also loud and disorderly and he can instantly turn himself into an expertly-drawn ratbag of a kid. He feels his grief deeply, finds his parents difficult to understand; no make that impossible to understand, and with terrifying passion can channel his anger and confusion and energy into Billy Bird.
Billy Bird’s behavior is disruptive and shambolic. He squawks and stomps and shouts and escapes into an avian culture completely of his own making, spending time in trees, trying to fly, wanting to eat like a bird … you get the picture.
All of this is very upsetting and disturbing for everyone but especially for his parents, of course, who can barely hold themselves together. Theirs is the classic situation. Both need a great deal from each other but neither is able to oblige. Iris’s ‘overthinking’ and cleaning mania drives her into an isolated place, and Liam literally takes off every chance he gets. They desperately need help.
The novel is a delicate and exceptional exploration of what it means to be a parent, a member of a family, of being married. The slight nuances and shifts in everyday occurrences are documented with electrical accuracy. So much so, that we experience the profound isolation of each member of Billy’s family, as well as their struggle towards finding some semblance of what they once had.
Emma cleverly draws on several writing styles and forms throughout this novel but always with just the right touch. She’s never intrusive nor contrived; and her genius – that of astonishingly fresh images and playful, inventive language – delights on all fronts.
I love Billy Bird for its honesty, its intelligence, its glorious exuberance. I first read the book in page proof form while overseas and when I returned home the physical novel arrived and I started to read it again – the second time with even more admiration for the writer of such a splendid story.
Congratulations to Penguin Random House for producing such a handsome book and to Abe Baillie for his apt and quirky cover illustration.
And congratulations to you, Emma. Billy Bird is masterly.
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Early Bird




The image above is the first version of the cover image for Billy Bird; we chose a less mischievously grinning imp for the final book. But this early bird (by Abe Baillie) seems a good picture to accompany first feedback.  (The picture quality is a cellphone shot only; the family camera has suffered an injury!) I’m curating a list of reviews of Billy Bird here, along with some interviews I’ve done about the book to date.


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There’s an invisible delete button in the space-time continuum



Last night, my elbow must have hit an invisible delete button in the space-time continuum. I stapled and folded my launch speech, put it in my handbag, patted it to make sure it was in there safe and happy, and arrived at the University Book Store without my launch speech. Cue panic. Cue rushing back to the car, scrambling around to look under seats. No speech. And at home later that night: still no speech. It’s spooky. 

I had to extemporise, with my hands shaking, and I’m pretty sure I forgot something. So by way apology, I’m posting the original here. People who did attend can spot the difference! (The first one is that I forgot to say my quadra-lingual greeting.)

Tena koutou katoa, talofa lava, bonsoir, good evening, thank you so much for coming.

I’m very aware that it gets uncomfortable holding still and being quiet for a long time, especially if you are age six or under. Or maybe even if you’ve ever been six and under. My own six-year-old wrote to his headmaster recently to ask if he could incorporate exercises into assembly, because keeping still and quiet was very difficult if you have a busy mind and legs that tingle. So I wonder if, before I say all my thank yous, Zac would like to lead us all in a short game of Simon Says.

[That didn’t happen on the night, as Zac said there were too many tall people and ‘I’m feeling on the shy side.’]

My thanks are going to run a backwards chronology. So, first is last: thank you to the University Book Shop for agreeing to host us here tonight. Sometimes I think I only write books so you can throw the parties I always mean to throw at home and never get around to organising.

To Barbara Larson, for taking on tonight’s launch role even though I asked her while she was swept up in overseas travel. Barbara’s professional support in the past makes her the perfect choice for tonight; my thanks now is a kind of slow-burn thank you for all the things she taught me while I worked for her.

To Harriet Allan, who really backed this book in a climate where her fiction list has been reduced to eight novels a year. She works incredibly hard, and puts in a lot of her so-called free, personal time into reading manuscripts, so if she were here, I’d be punctuating this speech with a massive hug. Sarah Ell, my copy editor, needs thanks too: she was very efficient and on the ball; and Carla Sy, the designer, added a number of flourishes that deftly carry some of Billy’s idiosyncrasies.

I want to shine the spotlight on my mother and my step-father, Barbara and Chris Else, also known as the literary agents Total Fiction Services. They read multiple drafts of Billy Bird, and never once blew their stacks. They pushed me on to really refine things, when it was tempting to submit just a ‘good enough’ manuscript, and hope nobody else noticed the baggy bits. But the publishing industry is so competitive now that they won’t let their clients take that risk. And I’m very grateful for that — and for so much more besides.

I also owe a huge thanks to the Department of English at the University of Otago, for the Burns Fellowship, which is where I wrote 3/4 of the first draft. I owe the university and Sir James Wallace thanks again for the Pah Homestead residency, where I finished that draft.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s galling to me that any of us should have to defend the humanities division at Otago, New Zealand’s oldest university. But it seems topical to point out that Billy Bird is just one small result of the support the division has given to the arts over the decades. Artists cannot thrive without financial support, vigorous debate about ideas, ethics, responsiblities, history, and multi-pronged discussion of creative problem-solving. That debate, analysis and creative-thinking nurture so many other aspects of human endeavour seems too obvious to need saying. Yet in the current climate, apparently we do need to repeat it, loud and clear. Some of the lectures that I attended during the Burns fellowship fed directly into decisions I made about the structure of the book. The relationship between robust criticism and the artistic process is vital.

I could say so much more about this, of course, but I have other people to thank tonight.

I’m grateful too for other financial and practical support – from the Caselburg Trust and the NZSA/Philip and Diane Beatson Award, and from Gillian Whitehead, who offered a retreat when I had to meet a tight publisher’s deadline.

I want to mention the medical and children’s mental health professionals who let me ask them lots of questions and who showed me around their workplaces – including Graeme Pringle and colleagues; Dr Lisa Turner and Gill Higgins; Michael Harlow; Dr Leye Greenslade and her colleagues at the Musselburgh Medical Centre. I would have gone down some very fruitless trails without their help. I hope my fictionalised version of how things play out with a boy like Billy does that help some justice.

I want to thank my husband, Danny, who can’t be here because he’s attending conferences, and is also just slipping in a spot of alpine exercise. Two days ago he competed in the Men’s World Masters Running Champs in Italy. He came 13th out of 49 men in his age category, which is pretty startling. He’s unfailingly supportive of the drive to write: to the point where he willingly solo-parented for three months while I took up the Pah Homestead residency. I wish he was here, but I’m really glad he is pursuing his own passions at the moment.

I want to thank the lovely Abe Baillie for the cover image — which gets just the right hybrid tone of quirky, melancholy and playful, I think. And to both Abe and Zac for running a daily school on how to be a parent, and for making the lessons so much fun.

Thank you to all my friends, both absent and present: I don’t get to see enough of any of you, but I hear living in a commune is hard work, so we’ll just have to do lunch.

I’d love it if we could all finish by making a 2-way toast: — to wise and creative children: the future generation who will still desperately need the humanities —and to the books that have helped to raise all of us here.



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Manifesto update

Thank you so much to all the poets who sent work in for Manifesto. We’ve made our final decisions now – after reading through  over 500 poems submitted.  Our original call out said no correspondence would be entered into: the unexpectedly high number of submissions reinforces that we can’t email declined poets individually. It’s been a massive job whittling the 500+ down to 101 – but ultimately we’re heartened  at the intense level of political engagement the entries show.

The American poet Mark Leidner tweeted recently that “A vote is a prayer with no poetry”: a tangy, memorable aphorism I’ll have playing over and over in my mind at the ballot box.

There are many things that poetry is a vote for. Fittingly, the collection is due out in mid 2017: in time for the elections.

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Billy Bird



After four years in the incubator, Billy Bird, my new novel for adultsis due for release.  The official launch date is  31 August. It’s going to be introduced by Barbara Larson, at the University Book Shop, Dunedin. Before then, I’m heading away to speak at Off the Page in Palmerston North (19 August)  and at the Christchurch WORD Festival (which runs August 25-28); and in September, I’ll be speaking at Going West (which runs September 9-12).

If I had to write an elevator pitch for this book, I’d say it’s about an overly anxious mother and a preoccupied father trying to work out how best to manage their young son, who insists that he’s a bird.

I’ve said in the press release for Penguin Random House that this is the best ‘hard fun’ I’ve ever had writing fiction. I wanted to play around with different literary modes to reflect shifts in mood and emotional development; so the book slides through narrative prose, complete poems, a mock stage script, lists, and even doodles.

Increasingly, as I grew more immersed in Billy’s family, it felt to me that flick-flacking in and out of styles reflected the constantly ducking and diving energy, the swerves of focus, in a busy household: not only its daily kitchen-sink mini-dramas, but the larger drama of three people dealing with how to recalibrate themselves individually and as a family after significant crises – ranging from professional/economic to personal.

Having a bright, quirky kid as one of the main characters in the book meant that  a lot of joy and comedy could lift some of the tougher events that this family confronts. Billy is a fusion of several funny, smart, vulnerable and wonderful kids I’ve met. Recently it’s been hard not to think of him as my own third child — or the book as ‘its own person’. I know it’s got a warm jacket on out there — but I hope it calls home now and then, to let us know how it’s doing.


*The cover illustration is by 14-year-old Abe Baillie; the overall design is by Carla Sy. Harriet Allan and Sarah Ell are my nimble and diligent editors. My highly tolerant literary agents (and manuscript assessors) are Barbara and Chris Else at Total Fiction Services.

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