New NZ Poets in Performance: Preface (2008)

Jack Ross, ed: New New Zealand Poets in Performance (2008)


Arthur Baysting, ed: The Young New Zealand Poets (1973)

Strangely enough, one of the most difficult things about editing this anthology has been finding a suitable title for it. When, almost five years ago now, Jan Kemp and I first began discussing the idea of publishing a set of CDs giving a historical overview of New Zealand poets performing their own work, the project seemed to fall naturally into two halves: Classics (roughly representing the traditional Kiwi poetic canon: Fleur Adcock, James K. Baxter, Allen Curnow, Hone Tuwhare and our other poetic elders.) and Contemporaries (the poets who came to the fore in the late sixties and seventies: Sam Hunt, Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde and Cilla McQueen prominent among them).

So many voices began to crowd in, though – so many poets and poems demanded to be listened to and heard – that it soon became apparent that two books (even with a double-set of CDs each) were not enough to contain them all. The only possible solution seemed to be a trilogy. Hence this book, the third in the series. But what to call it? What does come after “contemporary” in chronological sequence?

The Young New Zealand Poets was the title used by Arthur Baysting for his 1973 Heinemann anthology. But a brief consultation of the birthdates in our Table of Contents will reveal to you that all of the poets here are over thirty, and a few were born before the Cuban missile crisis. Nor do I think it would really be feasible to select effectively from poets less advanced in their careers. Our teen and twenty-something poets have their own post-millennial anthologies and virtual reality webcasts to come. So, somewhat reluctantly, we had to rule out Young.

Recent Poetry in New Zealand was the title chosen by Charles Doyle for his 1965 Collins anthology, memorialising an earlier generation of revolutionary young poets. But very few of the poets in any of our three anthologies haven’t published “recently.” Hone Tuwhare and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell are still putting out books; as are C. K. Stead and Kevin Ireland – not to mention virtually all of the writers in Contemporary NZ Poets in Performance. So Recent, too, seemed more than a little misleading.

The New Poets: Initiatives in New Zealand Poetry (Allen & Unwin, 1987) was Murray Edmond and Mary Paul’s attempt to map the turbulent seas of NZ poetry in the 1980s. Their title and subtitle were arranged quite ingeniously to avoid that awkward juxtaposition: New New Zealand Poetry. And yet, there’s something in that very awkwardness which seems appealing. So many colonial and postcolonial states and cities have that “new” lurking in their names: New Hampshire, New South Wales, New York, New Haven … Only two of the world’s 193 sovereign nations are forced to contend with such a dated (and dating) prefix, though: New Caledonia and New Zealand.

Is novelty the overwhelming characteristic of this third of our anthologies, then (anymore than it is of our country as a whole)? The blurb for Mark Pirie’s New Zealand Writing: The NeXt Wave (HeadworX, 1998) suggested that “hard-edged realism and fantasy, pulp and Science Fiction, postmodernism and multiculturalism mix with unruly urban rhythms and the shrill drive of popular youth culture and modern performance poetry” to represent the “emerging and innovative voices of the 1990s.” Anything and everything, in other words. Ten years on from Pirie’s bold claims, what are the distinguishing characteristics of Generation X, Generation Y, and all those other media-labelled trends?

First of all I’d single out the role of women writers and women’s poetry. It’s no accident that we’ve chosen to open the book with Anne Kennedy’s teasing nursery rhyme “I was a Feminist in the 1980s.” Kennedy addresses the concerns of a generation of women whose political certainties have been complicated by the sheer multifarious business of life, children, and relationships. Many of the other poets included here, Jenny Bornholdt, Anna Jackson, and Sonja Yelich among them, have been forced to contend with families and family-values in a way their “Man Alone” poetic predecessors were able – at least occasionally – to sidestep. The proportion of women poets to men here, too, begins finally to reverse the polarities of the male-dominated culture of the first half of the twentieth century. Is it at last time, in fact, for the guys to shut up and listen?

Beyond that huge shift in our literary body politic, I’m tempted to identify a new ease with the world of travel and ideas in poets such as Andrew Johnston and Kapka Kassabova, with sexuality and history in Emma Neale and Chris Price, with wide-ranging themes and intellectual austerity in Gregory O’Brien and Tracey Slaughter. These are poets determined to go their own way, wherever that may lead them. And yet, are their concerns so dissimilar from those of their predecessors of the twenties and thirties? Then, as now, Utopia and Dystopia were the two warring faces of the New Zealand psyche. The pastoral nostalgia of M. K. Joseph’s “Mercury Bay Eclogues” and A. R. D. Fairburn’s “The Cave” alternated with the sweeping perspectives of Curnow’s “Unhistoric Story” and Kendrick Smithyman’s “Near Ellon.”

Then there’s the strong multicultural and indigenous tradition pioneered by poets such as Hone Tuwhare and Albert Wendt, which has born fruit in the powerful, troubling work of Pasifika poets such as Tusiata Avia and John Pule. The effortless virtuosity and inclusiveness of Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka (2000), by contrast, might be seen to hold out hope of a new harmony within our complex, fractured society.

It’s still hard to say if Richard Reeve meant to be ironic or affirmative when he chose an epigraph from Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra for his anti-landscape poem “Victory Beach”:
And life itself confided this secret to me: ‘Behold,’
it said, ‘I am that which must always overcome itself ...’

If we are, indeed, a nation perpetually at odds with itself: athleticism at war with aestheticism, suburban vacuity with heartland values, an ever more vexed and fought-over past with a compensatory insistence on amnesiac novelty, then New New Zealand Poets in Performance is perhaps the best title we could have chosen to celebrate this diversity, the rich jangle of clashing ideas, voices, genders which combine to make a living culture.

I hope, like me, you’ll find the trip a stimulating one. I’ve learnt a lot about our country and its characteristic voices and concerns over the past five years, while working on these three anthologies. Whether you read them at home, listen to them in the car, pore over them in the library, or simply sample the odd page between appointments, I’m sure you’ll find some kindred spirits here – not to mention opponents of the type who clarify your own thinking. So three cheers for:
… the people we used to be, for
rice and dope and chilli olives, three shadows
for your silhouette, with its cigarette, for the sound
of a swing at midnight
the sound of a swing when the swinger is crying

(Olivia Macassey, “Outhwaite Park”)

Not a comforting vision, necessarily, but one which has the virtue of being disconcertingly, even (at times) agonisingly real.

The hardest thing in these cases is always deciding who to leave out. It’s better, in fact, to turn the question on its head and ask which writers you can’t imagine not including. And yet, it’s important to note that there are a lot of complicating circumstances in a sound anthology which don’t obtain in a more conventional print-only collection: the availability of suitable recordings, for one. Not to mention the undoubted fact that not all poets are accomplished performers of their own work.

Our principal criteria for selecting poets and poems remain, therefore, the same as in the previous two volumes:

  • literary merit (inevitably a subjective category – but also the most important one)
  • a strong body of published work (including at least one solo collection of poems)
  • a commitment to performance and the living voice as an integral part of the work

Once again, we’ve tried to be true to the words of the poem as it was read, rather than as its author published it (at the time or subsequently). All such variations between printed text and recording have been included in an appendix of variant readings. In accordance with our practice in the Classics and Contemporaries, this collation is confined to published books, and has not been extended to separate periodical publications.

Biographical and bibliographical information on each poet can be found listed after their poems.

In some cases the poets have dated their own work. These dates have been printed in italics. Otherwise, the dates in square brackets after each poem record its first book publication. In cases where the poem has not yet been collected in a book, the date of its first appearance in a periodical or online has been given instead.

To facilitate the use of the collection, CD and track numbers have been listed beside the text of each poem. Further details can be found in the Bibliography and Track list at the end of the book.


New New Zealand Poets in Performance. Edited by Jack Ross. Poems Selected by Jack Ross & Jan Kemp. ISBN 978 1 86940 4093 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008): ix-xiv.

[1520 wds]

New New Zealand Poets in Performance (2008)

No comments:

Post a Comment