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Te Reo surge in latest Poetry NZ

Feature poet in the latest Poetry New Zealand is Dr Robert Sullivan

The question ‘what is New Zealand poetry?’ is the overriding one for editor Dr Jack Ross, as he sifts through hundreds of submissions for Poetry New Zealand. His answer? We need to hear more Māori voices.

To remedy his observation that Māori poets have been overlooked in New Zealand publishing, he invited Māori poet Robert Sullivan to feature in the 50th issue and be Dr Ross’s second as managing editor of Poetry New Zealand, the country’s longest-running poetry journal. The volume includes an insightful interview with the poet canvassing a range of issues such as biculturalism, poetry and identity.

Dr Sullivan, who has Irish and Māori (Ngāpuhi) ancestry, shares his views on the ethics and entitlement of non-Māori writers using Te Reo. “I used to think if you’re not Māori you shouldn’t be using Māori terms because you don’t understand the significance, but I’ve changed my mind about that,” he says in the interview. “I think it’s better to promote the use of the language. But bringing it into poetry – well, readers of poetry can be quite pernickety. They’ll look it up, and they’ll actually deepen an understanding of Māori poetics.”

Sullivan, who heads the creative writing programme at the Manukau Institute of Technology and edited a 2014 anthology of 60 Māori poets titled Puna Wai Kōrero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English (AUP), says he’s discovered more Māori poets since the book was published. “The story of Māori poetry in English and the story of Pasifika poetry in English is, I think, one that still needs to be told.”

Kapa haka heralds future of Māori poetry

He says the National Kapa Haka competition, Te Matatini, represents hope for the future of poetry in Te Reo Māori. “They might call it dance, but the lyrics are all poetry. And it’s flourishing. It’s got its own spot on Māori television…it’s not just haka that are being performed, there are waiata, love songs, tangi.”

His ten new poems featured in Poetry New Zealand delve into childhood memories of growing up in Auckland, as well as tributes to his parents and grandparents.

In his introductory editorial, Dr Ross makes the case for biculturalism as an underpinning element in defining New Zealand poetry. “For all its faults and omissions and blind spots, the Treaty remains the foundation of our state, and we can’t ignore the principles of biculturalism embodied in it,” he writes.

And while he welcomes the concept of New Zealand “poetries” as a; “rich gamut of cultures and language which now exist in our islands expressing themselves in many languages and forms”, he feels that “no definition of New Zealand poetry which attempts to sideline or depreciate poetry and song in Te Reo can be taken seriously.”

He hopes more Māori poets will submit work in the future, in English and Te Reo Māori.

Poets new and established, near and far

The 286-page volume, published last November by The Printery at Massey University, comprises poetry and prose poems by some 80 poets, including well-known names Elizabeth Smither, Owen Marshall, Peter Bland, Alistair Paterson, Siobhan Harvey and David Eggleton.

New Zealand poets based overseas and newcomers to New Zealand from diverse ethnic backgrounds are all part of the line-up, with a number of contributors either based in, or originating from, Bosnia, Canada, the United States, Scotland, Australia, and Japan.

Massey University writers include award-winning poet and Master of creative writing graduates Sue Wootton and Janet Newman, and award-winning poet and PhD in creative writing graduate Dr Johanna Emeney, as well as creative writing tutors Dr Matthew Harris and Dr Bronwyn Lloyd, and lecturer Dr Bill Angus.

Essays, commentary and reviews on new poetry publications by a host of local literary talents provide incisive explorations of some of the newest voices on the New Zealand poetry scene.

Dr Ross has signalled further changes to the publication, with the next issue to be published early in 2017 by Massey University Press – a new press launched in 2015 and headed by veteran publisher Nicola Legat. To shorten the length of time some contributors have had to wait for a decision, he’s decided to confine submissions to a three-month period: from May 1st to July 31st of each year, beginning in 2016.

Dr Ross – a poet, editor and critic who teaches fiction, poetry, and travel writing in the School of English and Media Studies at Massey’s Auckland campus – in 2014 replaced distinguished poet, anthologist, fiction-writer, critic and retiring editor Alistair Paterson, who oversaw Poetry New Zealand for 21 years.

The journal originated in 1951 when poet Louis Johnson began publishing his annual New Zealand Poetry Yearbook.

Was there a stand out poem for Dr Ross? “It's hard to single out any one person from so stellar a list of contributors, but I found the two pieces sent me by young poet Emma Shi sounded to me like messages from a strange new country I'd never visited before. She is, I believe, a powerful new talent whom I hope to hear much more from in the future,” he says.

To buy a copy, click here. Read more on Dr Ross’s poetry blog or check the Poetry New Zealand Facebook page here.


By Emma Shi

skipping dead insects across the ocean

i wake up with fists clenched. the glass shimmers

and crushes under my fingers like wings. he

cites me as the one with broken knuckles. it

is easier, he says, to remember things that way.


i start to wear creased butterflies in my hair. then

stuffed in my coat pocket, wrapped in brown paper

like a parcel. on tuesdays, i carve words into

the shore: run, flight, fog. wait, watch as the

sea chases them away, and chase it back

till i’m up to my heart with water.


the last butterfly flickers away at high tide. i practise

breathing underwater but the fish gnaw at my skull

like metal. i don’t know what i’m waiting for, i

tell him, and he says, whatever’s left. so i press my skin

against seashells, forget how to breathe again. 


By Dr Robert Sullivan

Māra kai

Living on the other side of the Museum now

is the adult side. Grafton is where I was a child.

The things I know now I wish I knew then!

This sensory garden does invite the skin and ears.

I can hear the soft rain, cars swishing and thrumming,

the odd bird, splashes and drips, cool spring

on my soles even through my shoes,

the pressed warmth of the back of my left knee

on top of the right one, gentle movements

of the olive leaves, native and exotic bird calls –

some like ref whistles, others on slower patterns,

tyres like Velcro tears, birds like quiet

microwave ovens, muffled roaring vehicles,

circling wheels and spray.

I see the results of rain

by the splash of puddles, and see

the occasional drop from a leaf – that sort of rain –

the occasional cluck. The breeze

is like a big beer fridge.

The sunlight and the starlight know this.

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