Celebrating World Poetry Day – Wednesday 21 March 2018

It’s World Poetry Day today! As an occasional poet myself, I’m a bit embarrassed to say I didn’t know there was a World Poetry Day until earlier this week. Turns out the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization are behind it, declaring in 1999 that March 21st would be a day to celebrate poetry globally each year.

What’s so good about poetry though? For lots of people, poetry doesn’t really play a part in their lives – at the most, perhaps when people think of poetry they think of a stuffy 3rd form classroom, being lectured about World War One rhyming couplets and Shakespearean sonnets.

Poetry in the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre
Poetry in the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre. Central Library Manchester, Christchurch. Friday 22 August 2014. Flickr 2014-08-22-IMG_1608

But, as the UN says: “Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings…” which is a pretty comforting idea. At its most simple, I guess they’re saying that whatever background and culture and language you come from, poetry provides a way of explaining thoughts and feelings and ideas that maybe just don’t make as much sense in other formats. What would the Hogwarts Sorting Hat be without its introductory poem? The Oompa Loompas without their songs? And on a more serious note, those soldiers writing in the trenches certainly thought they could express their experiences more powerfully through poems; and the poems that come out of revolutions and wars and times of upheaval can give us insight into the humanity of a situation that a simple news report cannot. For most cultures around the world, storytelling, poetry, and spoken word are the key ways histories have been recorded and traditions have survived.

Phantom Poetry on High Street
Phantom Poetry on High Street. Flickr CCL-2012-07-IMG_5335

There’s plenty of opportunity to explore some poetry this World Poetry Day – a short walk around the city will get you face to face with a poem on a bollard or a wall with thanks to Phantom Billstickers poetry posters; a quick YouTube search and you’ll find plenty of slam and performance poetry (Button Poetry is a great place to start); and of course the library has plenty of poetry to get your hands on – why not start with Kate Tempest (UK); Rupi Kaur (Canada); or Selina Tusitala Marsh?


Or you could check out some live poetry! It’s happening all year round in Ōtautahi, with Catalyst, Faultline Poetry Collective, and Mad Poets Society all hosting regular events. There’s also a New Zealand National Poetry Day, celebrated this year on Friday 24th August where events and competitions are run all over the country.

It’s pretty clear that poetry is still strong, still living and breathing in communities all around the world – including right here!


Happy Birthday James K. Baxter!

Hokitika Bill, Hokitika Bill. I remember chanting this poem aloud at Primary School.

Poet James K. Baxter was born in Dunedin on 29 June 1926. His parents were thinkers – his father Archibald was a conscientious objector and Millicent, his mother had been to College in Sydney.

The dichotomy of social order was represented by his family – his maternal grandfather was Māori, his paternal grandfather was Scots. This fed his mind with the differences and similarities between Clans and Tribes.

Baxter began writing poetry from age seven. His work is said to have become technically accomplished by the time he was a teenager.

Beyond the Palisade was published in 1944 – Baxter’s first year of University at Otago, to great acclaim. Influenced by Dylan Thomas, as was Janet Frame at the time, Baxter was part of the Wellington Group of writers. Fellows included W.H. Oliver and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell.

Cover of O Jerusalem: James K. Baxter : An Intimate MemoirIn 1968 Baxter was told in a dream to go to Jerusalem (Hiruharama), a settlement on the Whanganui River. He worked with the poor, and spoke out against a social order that sanctions poverty.

Baxter’s canon of works is astronomical, and well worth a read. We also have his novel – Horse.

Check out our James K. Baxter display in the reference room at Central Library Manchester.

Further reading

The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Longlist 2017

It’s out. The longlist for New Zealand’s most prestigious book award. Plenty of options here for reading over the summer months. A shortlist for the awards will be announced in March next year and the winners in May.

Ready, set, make your reserves.


Cover of The Wish Child Cover of Love as a stranger Cover of Tail of the taniwha Cover of My mother and the Hungarians Cover of Billy Bird Cover of Deleted scenes for lovers Cover of The name on the door is not mine Cover of Dad art Cover of Strip


Cover of Back with the human condition Cover of Fale Aitu: Spirit House Cover of Hera Lindsay Bird Cover of In the supplementary garden Cover of Thought horses Cover of As the verb tenses Cover of Fits & starts Cover of This paper boat Cover of And so it is Cover of Beside herself

Illustrated Non-fiction

Cover of Mansfield and me Cover of New Zealand wine Cover of A beautiful hesitation Cover of Futuna: Life of a building Cover of A whakapapa of tradition Cover of Bloomsbury South Cover of 101 works of art Cover of A history of New Zealand women Cover of Ann Shelton: Dark matter

General Non-Fiction

Cover of Can you tolerate this? Cover of This model world Cover of Big smoke Cover of Being Chinese Cover of The great war for New Zealand Cover of The world, the flesh and the Devil Cover of My father's island Cover of New Zealand's rivers: An environmental history Cover of The broken decade

See previous winners of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Fleur Adcock returns to poetry and New Zealand: an interview

Glass Wings at Christchurch City LibrariesFleur Adcock is a legend in New Zealand literary circles. She is one of our favourite poets and, although she has spent much of her life in England, her popularity is as strong as it ever was judging by the long queues at the book signing session.

For ten years Fleur Adcock didn’t write poetry. Instead she ‘fell in love with facts and wanted to extract them and not deal with any of that airy fairy stuff you think up in your head.’ Her latest collection, Glass Wings, marks the end of this creative drought.

I was lucky enough to grab a few minutes of her time after her session.

Are you glad to be back on New Zealand soil?

I’m feeling rather overwhelmed at being back in New Zealand. I’ve been here for about five weeks so I’ve had time to get to know it again and get to know people again and remember how beautiful it is. Auckland is so beautiful – all the trees and the vegetation – and Wellington is kind of home so I do have those connections. Then I’m off again but this time I’m definitely going to come back sooner.

I really enjoyed your latest collection of poems, Glass Wings. Ancestry is an important theme running through your work?

Yes, it’s becoming more and more so in people’s lives but this happens as people get older. They start taking an interest in their ancestors. I often find when people say the kids aren’t interested, just wait twenty years. They’ll get around to it.

In the session you read your poem The Chiffonier which was published in 1986 and at the time hit a chord with many people who went out to buy The Listener especially to read this poem. It deals with the idea of rootlessness and being torn between places.

You realise you can’t substitute things for people but things are important too because they are symbolic of people. They remind us.

You spoke about the state of the libraries in England. Since the earthquakes in Christchurch, libraries have proved to be important places for people to come to. The thought that many libraries in England closing is quite frightening to me.

It is appalling. I suppose it will start creeping back again and they’ll realise what they’ve done. I think they’re trying to find substitutes and set up places in supermarkets and things but not in actual library buildings. These are often listed buildings, buildings that have been donated. There are so many other uses libraries can be put to. They can always extend their range and find ways of keeping them going – if they wish.

You said searching though the internet or on a computer is very different from searching for books in the library.

Just browsing you suddenly see an interesting looking volume down on the bottom shelf and you pick it up and you open it and it hits you with a new experience, a new realm to explore.

Fleur Adcock at AWRF 2013Did you enjoy being a librarian?

Some of the time, yes. I got stuck in cataloguing for six or seven years in the Foreign Commonwealth Office and that was very depressing because we had to keep training new, young cataloguers and I was the only one who could do it until I  finally trained someone who really liked it and she took over. Then I went into the reference section and I could do research and the things I like doing now. Answering questions from readers who had written it. That’s what I like doing – finding things for people.

Are you writing poetry now?

Yes, well not at this moment. I haven’t written anything for the last month. It’s impossible because I never stop talking. I’m in the middle of a new sequence and I’ve been doing some research for that about my father’s early days in New Zealand as a teenager so when I get home, as I have to call it, I’ll get on with that.

You mentioned the term ‘reclusive’. Is it difficult for someone who loves to spend time quietly working on their own, to come out to writers festivals?

No, I like doing things like that as long as there’s a home to go back to in the end. As long as you don’t have to get back to the husband. I can’t deal with that. I can’t wake up in the morning and have someone around the house because a lot of my thoughts, my ideas and impulses occur when I’m fresh when I wake up in the morning. It just wouldn’t work if I had to converse over breakfast.

Hone Tuwhare – A Poet to Arouse the Senses

When I heard in 2008 that Hone Tuwhare  had died, I felt saddened. I thought about how the country had lost one of its special artists and wordsmiths and from now on, there would be no new poems conjured from his wonderful mind. Fortunately the library collection has many of his books, along with a biography by Janet Hunt and a CD of this poems, Tuwhare,  put to music and performed by leading New Zealand artists.

I first came across one of his poems in Essential New Zealand Poems, a book, by the way, that is a excellent collection of some our finest poets’ works.

I went on to explore more of his works, he published over 20 collections in book form and was a fascinating person to hear being interviewed or reading his work. Insightful, irreverent and accessible, his poems are a celebration of life, and he particularly loved writing about food, sex, music and nature. His political poems are pithy and relevant yet from the common man’s point of view.

From his collection “Oooooo……!!!”

On life’s eternal river we float on… and on, forever – like a stream of light enhancing our understanding of human love and life! Kia Ora!

Who is your favourite New Zealand poet?

Poetry personified? I’ll drink to that!

coverWhat do you call a gathering of New Zealand poetry rock stars (a.k.a. Poet Laureates)? A diligence of describers? A ponderance of poets? A promise of perfection?

There have been many notable poets to have held the post of Poet Laureate (including the late Hone Tuwhare, 1999-2001), so having the opportunity to hear four past and the present Poet Laureate perform together is a rare delight indeed.

At the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, we’ll be treated to well-crafted words from Bill Manhire (inaugural Poet Laureate 1997-1999), Elizabeth Smither (2001-2003), Jenny Bornholdt (2005-2007), Michele Leggott (2008-2009) and Cilla McQueen. Brian Turner, who held the post from 2003-2005 is presently overseas.

The Office of Poet Laureate has been in existence since at least 1389 when Geoffrey Chaucer was titled thus and granted an annual allowance of money and wine. The salary has varied over time, but alcohol is still traditionally included.

John Dryden in the 1670s had a pension of 300 pounds and a ‘butt’ of canary wine – equivalent today to 477 litres of sherry. One would need to drink 1.3 litres/day in order to get through the annual stipend – conducive to either incoherent ramblings or inspired genius!

New Zealand’s Poet Laureate Award was established by Te Mata Winery in 1996, its centenary year. From 2007 the Award has been administered by the National Library of NZ. The Award is selected biennially and as a distinct improvement from a butt of canary wine, the Poet Laureate is awarded with a tokotoko (carved walking stick) for ceremonial use, as well as a stipend of Te Mata wine.

A Poet Laureate’s drafts, podcasts, readings, online and published works are preserved in National Library’s Digital Heritage archive, and in collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Poetry at the library

dressing-for-cannibals-inviteIn the next two weeks the Central City Library is lucky enough to be hosting three poetry events featuring Christchurch poet Frankie McMillan as part of Christchurch City Libraries 150th Anniversary celebrations. 

On Thursday 20th August Frankie will be launching Dressing for the cannibals, her new book of poems, at 5.30 pm and on Friday the 21st of August at 12.30 pm she will be joined in a poetry reading by an illustrious group of fellow poets.

Ross Brighton (Pelt, a shrub, a soil sample), David Gregory (Push), Bernadette Hall (The lustre jug), Michael Harlow, (The tram conductor’s new blue cap) Helen Lowe and Joanna Preston (The summer king) will all be reading from their work.

For those inspired by these readings or looking to add to their skills in writing their own poetry Frankie will be leading a workshop on Saturday the 29th of August at 10 am.

I asked Frankie some questions about her own work prior to her sessions at the library. She began writing poetry at the age of 14, in what she describes as a “vain attempt to attract boys”, possibly inspired by a movie or TV show where the beautiful heroine sat on a high stool and stared wistfully into the distance while she thought of POETRY.

As a small child Frankie was mistress of the 10 page story, written in an attempt to impress her teachers and all with a strange theological bent they shared with her drawings of the time. Moving from theology to drama, Frankie credits the two year Performing Arts Diploma she undertook in  Sydney, where she studied  devised theatre, Commedia dell’Arte, dance and improvisation, with informing her writing.

Her first book of short stories, The bag lady’s picnic and other stories, was published in 2001 and in 2005 she received the CNZ Todd Bursary to write a second collection. Work on this collection continues with her stories being selected for Best NZ Fiction in 2008 and 2009.

Many writers talk about the need to write every day, to sit down and make themselves get something on the paper. Frankie tends to alternate stages of being highly disciplined and writing up to 500 words a day, with periods of waiting until she builds up a head of steam and a sense of urgency. She doesn’t write every day but she is carrying around thoughts about writing and storing away observations for future use.

With poetry she tends to work quite quickly, with the premise that the first idea is the best idea (nothing is original after all), and seeing what thoughts attract themselves to that idea. Bill Manhire’s observation that the words themselves should be part of the process of discovery and not just a recoding device for a familiar set of observations is one that resonates.

So who is her favourite poet? There are a few but one will also be reading on Friday so we can all see how he “uses symbol and image in a tender and magical way” – Michael Harlow, current Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.

Other favourites incude Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney (both in my Pantheon), Robert Bly, Billy Collins and Sharon Olds for their ability to surprise and unsettle, to reaffirm what it is to be human and their dexterity with language.  

As much as contemporary literature Frankie credits the two year Performing Arts Diploma she undertook in  Sydney studying  devised theatre, Commedia dell’Arte, dance and improvisationwith informing her writing.