The most eye-catching feature of Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen’s anthology The Penguin book of New Zealand verse (1985) was the inclusion, for the first time in such a collection, of poetry in the Māori language. The decision provoked controversy, but reflected the emerging values of the time.
This marks the beginning of a period in which familiar value judgments have to come to seem less stable. To identify a central thread in the poetry of the years since would be to misrepresent the era.
New poets of the 1980s and 1990s
In 1989 a companion anthology, The Penguin book of contemporary New Zealand poetry, brought into the fold a generous muster of poets born since the mid-1950s. They included David Eggleton, Janet Charman, Leigh Davis, Anne French, Michele Leggott, Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien. Also new were two poets a few years older: Dinah Hawken and Bernadette Hall.
Michele Leggott, ‘Blue Irises’ 1, 1994
I wanted to mouth you all over
spring clouds spring rain spring
tenderness of afternoons spent
blazing trails to this
place where breath roars through
the famous architecture of a poet’s ear
Rose and peony buds and tongue
ichthyous tumble honey and pearl –
the runner’s foot has touched and adored
wistaria sprang after you, figs tipped
green air astounded by your passage
to the audient quays of the city
Now it begins, another voyage after nemesis
blue-eyed with the distance of it all1
In 1997 An anthology of New Zealand poetry in English, edited by Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien and Mark Williams, added further newly established voices, among them: Geoff Cochrane, Chris Orsman, Andrew Johnston, Robert Sullivan and the versatile playwright, fiction-writer and poet, Fiona Farrell. The anthology also included the influential Pacific writer Albert Wendt. All these writers have enjoyed successful careers, along with newer arrivals such as Anne Kennedy, Diana Bridge and James Brown. But, aside from their freshness and their ongoing productivity, it is not easy to suggest common denominators.
Tusiata Avia, from ‘Wild dogs under my skirt’, 2004
I want to tattoo my legs.
Not blue or green
I want to sit opposite the tufuga
and know he means me pain
I want him to bring out his chisel
and strike my thighs
the whole circumference of them
like walking right round the world
like paddling across the whole Pacific
in a log
knowing that once you’ve pushed off
loaded the dogs on board
there’s no looking back now, Bingo.
I want my legs as sharp as dogs’ teeth
wild Samoan dogs
the mangy kind that bite strangers.2
A ‘Manhire school’?
In the early 2000s there were more books of poetry being published than at any time in New Zealand’s history.
A contributor to this profusion was the rise of creative writing programmes. By far the best-known and most successful has been the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), established by Bill Manhire at Victoria University of Wellington. Manhire’s view of writing stresses the hard but also teachable work of making a poem from language. It downplays the romantic approach of poetry being an overflow of strong feelings.
A growing roster of successful graduates inevitably provoked questions about ‘cloning’ and ‘production lines’. But, while there are common features among many of these Manhire-schooled writers, their ranks include poets as different from one another as the sardonic stylist Kate Camp and the punchy and dramatic Tusiata Avia.
Poetry in the 2000s
The IIML and the associated poetry list of Victoria University Press constitutes a kind of ‘centre’ in the poetry landscape. But this is to ignore not just the diversity of the list itself, but all kinds of poets and poetries prospering elsewhere. For some time Auckland had a group interested in postmodern and American poetry, and open to more experimental work. This included Leigh Davis, Alan Loney, Wystan Curnow and Michele Leggott – who, apart from her own poetic work, brought Robin Hyde’s poetry back into consideration and set up a major website, the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre.
Older poets Vincent O’Sullivan and C. K. Stead continued to write as well as ever. Of the 1970s generation, Ian Wedde, Elizabeth Smither, Cilla McQueen, Murray Edmond and Sam Hunt were still prospering in the 2000s. New audiences were discovered for the Central Otago landscapes of veteran Brian Turner and the bicultural populism of Glenn Colquhoun. Accomplished performance poets included Selina Tusitala Marsh and Hinemoana Baker. Other poets to emerge in the 2000s included Anna Jackson, Bulgarian-born Kapka Kassabova, Chris Price and Sonja Yelich.
And this is to say nothing of the poetry that found its audience in other places: writing groups, open mics, poetry slams. The New Zealand Poetry Society, a national organisation for poets, published a bi-monthly newsletter and held monthly meetings in Wellington. The Canterbury Poets Collective was very active in Christchurch. Regular readings included Circadian Rhythm in Dunedin and Poetry Live in Auckland. Poets were well-represented at literary festivals. Paula Green was influential in promoting poetry in a variety of ways, including a poetry blog for children.
After around 150 years of New Zealand poetry in English, the practice has never been in better health.