Poetry NZ Yearbook 2: Editorial (2015)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 [Issue #50] (November 2015)

What is New Zealand Poetry?

Image: Karl Chitham

One of the courses I teach – at Massey University’s Auckland campus – is Travel Writing. This year more than half of the students in my class were born and brought up outside New Zealand. I know, because I asked them at our first meeting.

Amongst many other students from many places, there are three young Arabic women in the group. One’s from Egypt, another from Syria, and the third from Saudi Arabia. They couldn’t be more different.

My Egyptian student is a free-thinking thrillseeker, a wild child, capable of jumping in a cab and jetting off anywhere at the drop of a hat. My Syrian student dresses and speaks like a pretty typical teenager. One of the class assignments is to write a piece about travelling on Auckland public transport, and hers was about bussing in to Auckland Uni with a more orthodox friend who nevertheless spends thirty minutes each morning styling her hijab to look as chic as possible.

My Saudi student is married, with two small children. She wears a hijab, and is clearly more conservative in her beliefs and attitudes than the other two. Her local travel adventure was to be handed a mobile phone by the bus-driver and told to explain to the person at the other end (a Chinese woman who thought she’d left something behind when she got off a few stops before) that he couldn’t discuss it with her while he was driving. Perhaps the question above should be, not so much “What is New Zealand Poetry?” as “What is New Zealand?” It’s a pretty diverse place these days: not much like the little seaside suburb I grew up in.

So much the better. It’s one of the perks of my job that I do get to meet and listen to such a cross-section of the young people of Aotearoa New Zealand, be they African, Asian, Arabic, American, European, Māori, Pākehā, Polynesian or any variant on the above.

So, after all that preamble, what is New Zealand poetry? It’s probably something that an editor of Poetry NZ needs to have a stated position on, given the journal’s title (in each of its various permutations over the years). And yet it’s surprisingly difficult to answer.

Does it mean poetry written in New Zealand, by no matter who, in whatever language? That would at least have the virtue of simplicity. But then what of poems written by New Zealand nationals (or long-term residents) abroad? Surely that, too, is New Zealand poetry?

In the most comprehensive attempt (to date) to debate the nature of our body poetic, Paula Green and Harry Ricketts’ 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (Auckland: Vintage, 2010), the authors say in their preface:
While this book celebrates what poetry can do, we are exploring this idea within the context of New Zealand poems across time, culture, age, gender, style and geographical location … We have only explored poems written in English as neither of us are experts in the other languages of New Zealand (in particular Māori).
That was also the approach taken by the last major attempt to provide a single-volume coverage of the whole canon: Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien, and Mark Williams’ Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (Auckland: Oxford, 1997).

There’s a certain undeniable convenience to confining oneself solely to the English language. As Governor William L. Harding of Iowa put it, in response to criticism of his WWI regulation banning church services in foreign languages: “There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue.”

I can’t say that I feel particularly comfortable with the idea, though. As I understand it, our nation is based on a partnership between (on the one hand) the tangata whenua, the people of the land, and (on the other) any and all subsequent immigrants to the country. This agreement is embodied in that deceptively simple document known as the Treaty of Waitangi.

It would be nice if one could believe that the Māori and English texts of the Treaty say exactly the same thing. That is far from being the case, however, as William Colenso warned while it was being drafted.

Nor was it signed by everyone. There were significant hold-outs in various parts of the country: the Urewera, for instance, and much of the South Island. They could justly claim that whoever the Treaty covered, it wasn’t them.

Nevertheless, 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 bi-culturalism embodied in it.

So, while I welcome the concept of New Zealand poetries rather than New Zealand poetry: the rich gamut of cultures and languages which now exist in our islands expressing themselves in many languages and forms – in the original and in translation, in dual-text and oral form – I continue to feel that no definition of New Zealand poetry which attempts to sideline or depreciate poetry and song in Te Reo can be taken seriously.

It’s the principal subject of poetic interest for audiences outside New Zealand, and so it should be: we’re fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. I was therefore fascinated to hear what Robert Sullivan, our feature poet, had to say on the subject (in the interview printed on pp. 25-40 of this issue). As a Pākehā New Zealander, I took particular note of his comments about “the need to represent one’s own stories.” He does, however, specify that:
when I was younger 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. 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.

There were a great many submissions for this issue of Poetry NZ Yearbook. It took us a long time to read and consider them all, and while we included as many as we could of the excellent poems you sent in, there is, inevitably, a limit to this process.

As a result, and to shorten the length of time some contributors have had to wait for a decision, we’ve decided to confine submissions in future to a three-month period: from May 1st to July 31st of each year, in fact: beginning in 2016. This will enable us to have a clearer sense of the dimensions of each issue before making our final choices.

Another reason for this change is because I’m very happy to announce that Poetry NZ will in future be published by Massey University Press. While this will not affect the editorial policy or present direction of the journal, it does have certain implications for our production schedule.

Poetry NZ Yearbook will, in future, appear towards the beginning rather than the end of the year, so the submissions collected in 2016 will actually appear in PNZ Yearbook 3 (February / March 2017). This does mean a longer interval between Yearbook 2 and Yearbook 3 than we would have wished for, but we hope that the establishment of the new Poetry NZ Poetry Prize (details of which will shortly be announced online: on the PNZ website and elsewhere) will provide enough stimulation to bridge the gap.

One of the first submissions I received for the present issue was from veteran actor / poet / Renaissance man Peter Bland, who wrote: “It occurred to me that I hadn’t contributed to Poetry NZ (ex NZ Poetry Yearbook) since 1958!! So I thought it was high time I tried again.” I have to say that it’s remarks like that which really brighten up an editor’s day: the continuous chain of poetry yearbooks and bi-annual issues from 1951 to 2015 (with occasional gaps, admittedly) becomes quite awe-inspiring to contemplate.

It is, however, with equal excitement that I welcome so many new voices, young and old, local and international, to this issue of PNZ.

As far as the poetics section goes, the essays and reviews, I thought I should explain here why some books have received full reviews and others only a brief notice. This is principally due to the date the books arrived. Titles which came in after our submissions deadline of 31st July have been “noticed” rather than reviewed simply because of the time required for any reviewer to read and absorb a book.

The distinction, I should stress, is never based on any pre-conceived opinion that one book is more important and worthy than another. I did my best to organise reviews of all the books received before that date.

I have, however, not commissioned complete reviews of separate issues of journals: these are clearly important publications in their own right, but it’s doubtful whether they can be said – except in rare instances – to have the unity of purpose of a book of poetry. They do, however, certainly merit as full a notice as we can possibly give them.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2 [Issue #50]. ISSN 0114-5770 (2014): 7-10.

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Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 (2015)

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