The word best sits uncomfortably with the editors of Ōrongohau: Best New Zealand Poems. New Zealanders share a long-running joke that understatement is our national art form—and poets are not exempt, as 2021 guest editor Kate Camp reminded me. Best may be a useful shorthand for the caliber of the annual series, which highlights poetry from the previous year in an online anthology published by the International Institute of Modern Letters, and which released its newest volume on March 31. (Eligible poems must be written by an author from or living in Aotearoa New Zealand and published in the previous calendar year in a book or journal; each installment is curated by a new guest editor.) The problem is, best doesn’t quite capture the anthology’s tone and values. “The editor of every issue has struggled with the perception that they are being asked to pick winners in what should be a non-competitive field,” series editor Chris Price explained to me over e-mail. “I’m pretty sure ‘Some Poems I Admire’ would be a less troubling English title to everyone tasked with picking favorites.”
The anthology’s Māori language title, Ōrongohau, more deftly embodies its editorial ethos. Gifted to the series in 2019 by Dr. Mike Ross, a scholar of Māori studies at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, Ōrongohau is a compound word that can be translated several ways: “Your news/views/thoughts/feelings are heard,” or “Your fame [is carried] on the wind.” As Price said to me, Ōrongohau “embraces a different editorial taste each year in the hope of spreading the love around different poetic modes and communities, and it broadcasts the rich variety of poems made in Aotearoa New Zealand far and wide. Maybe that’s better than best.”
The new issue of Ōrongohau: Best New Zealand Poems features twenty-five poems published in 2021, with themes ranging from a family legacy of drowning to a rat dissection gone wrong. Many bristle with what issue editor Kate Camp characterizes as New Zealand’s poetic “superpower,” a potent admixture of humility and defiance. Camp is the author of seven collections of poetry, most recently How to Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems (House of Anansi Press, 2021). Alongside her acclaim as a poet, New Zealanders know Camp’s literary voice in quite a literal sense: She’s hosted Kate’s Klassics, a syndicated national radio program on great books, for more than twenty years. Over Zoom, Camp chatted with me about the process of putting together Ōrongohau: Best New Zealand Poems 2021 at the kitchen table of her family beach house—a place where poems move across the walls, linger by the tea kettle, and can even be found tucked inside kitchen cupboards.
In your introduction to the new issue of Ōrongohau, you talk about whittling down your longlist of poems while on summer holiday with your mother. I love the editorial process you describe: “If I couldn’t resist the urge to interrupt her book and read a poem aloud across the room, that was a sign it belonged on the shortlist.”
My mum’s really into poetry and knows a ridiculous amount of poetry by heart. Over the years, we’ve learned poems together. She really likes to hear poetry aloud, and so do I. I don’t know how many poems I read for this—maybe two thousand, three thousand? Reading aloud was a good way to get out of my head and it’s a pretty good measure for a poem. Quite often I would read a poem and my mum would say, “Oh, amazing ending,” or I’d be like, “Incredible ending, I love it.” Poetry takes place in an instant—maybe it takes you several minutes to read the poem, but you’re basically kind of the swallowing it whole. So the conclusion of that experience is super important. Like Bryan Walpert’s “Infinities,” in the new issue. It’s a really long poem with a lot of run-on sentences and then it ends in such a satisfying way.
I think New Zealanders will find a mix of familiar and new voices in the anthology—but these names may not be so well-known to international readers.
Fleur Adcock’s might be the oldest poet in this year’s collection and the most established name in New Zealand literature. My mother used to often recite Fleur Adcock’s poems to us or quote the lines “because I’m your mother and we are kind to snails” from “For a Five-Year-Old.” Adcock’s been one the voices of my childhood, along with Shakespeare and Frost. Dinah Hawken is another who’s been a really singular voice in New Zealand poetry for a long time. You know you’re reading a Dinah Hawken by the stillness within the work and care of the poem. Then there are heaps of poets in here who I’d never heard of, like Lily Holloway—I’d actually chosen two of Holloway’s poems without realizing they were by the same person. There are lots of discoveries.
You note in your editorial that quite a few poems seemed to touch on New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown, but it’s hard to tell because poets already “often stay home and complain.” This made me laugh—I’d observed a recurring theme of solitude in the collection, but when I looked more closely at whether it was particular to the pandemic, the impression I came away with was of a rather frisky solitude. There’s a sexual energy to a lot of this loneliness, as epitomized by Emma Barnes’s “Ohio,” in which a dildo makes a forlorn appearance at a costume party.
I think New Zealand poetry just has more sex in it than it used to. Fleur Adcock is one of the few New Zealand poets of previous generations who often included poems about sex. She’s got a famous one about masturbation—I remember reading that as a teenager, and being like, “Whoa, can’t believe this old woman of my mother’s age is talking about this.” There’s definitely more sexual explicitness; I also think LGBTQ poets have come to the fore. People’s gender and their sexuality have become more part of the material that we’re all foraging from.
And discovering—in the emergency room of Wes Lee’s “The Terrific Beating of My Heart” and in the Auckland parks of Gus Goldsack’s “Park, Night.” It can even be found in that solitary “roomy queen” in Anne Kennedy’s “Flood Monologue.” That’s a phrase you dwell on in your liner notes for the poem.
When I reread my commentary, I was like, “Oh my God, this is just such a fucking gush.” But it was just really nice to be able to celebrate. In the first creative writing workshop I was ever in, I decided I was going to be the person who would focus on what was working in a piece of writing in an analytical way. I was in the middle of trying to escape all the dumb, fucked-up shit that I’d got myself into. And I thought, “Hey, being a writer could be a new life for me”—and a really good way to make friends would be to focus on the things that are good in a piece of writing. Over the years, I think that’s become part of my philosophy. To be able to deconstruct why something is working is so important in your own work or in someone else’s work. Yet we tend to spend all our time deconstructing why something isn’t working. We’d spend paragraphs saying why we’re not sure the ending is working, but if we love the opening, we’ll be like “great, tick.” You can learn so much from unpacking why something is working—you could spend a whole poetry class looking at the line break of the “roomy queen” in that Anne Kennedy poem.
Did any of these poems—and what was good about them—surprise you?
“True Stories” by Sam Duckor-Jones poem surprised me: I know I’m prejudiced against things that have unusual layout. When I look at a poem with redactions and the square format of prose, I’m probably going to be quite hard to win over. But it won me over. Tim Saunders’s poem “Devoir” has a sort of frontier New Zealand feel about it—a bit of a turn-off for me. I could feel I was resistant to the charms of that poem. But I loved when I got to the end of it. I still don’t know if he was talking to the dog or the moon.
Another was “Roadside trees” by Tim Upperton, which was in a collection of poems responding to Dante’s Purgatory. I doubt I would’ve ever picked up that collection in a bookshop and yet I absolutely love this poem. It’s a good example of how responding to a prompt or a commission can result in an amazing work. John Weir’s poem “The Tour” falls into a similar category—I’d never heard of [Cold Hub Press, the publisher of Sparks Among the Stubble] but I really enjoyed his whole book.
Ash Davida Jane’s “haircut” I could read over and over again. It has such a spirit of compassion and appreciation for humanity while capturing how ordinary and boring we are. That’s just the spot for me. The things she chooses to put in there: “someone sautés onions in a frying pan / and empties the skins brown and round / into the compost.” So many poets would’ve left it at the frying pan, but she takes time to describe the skins, the rice going down the drain, trapping a spider to release it outside—such a familiar act. I always feel that’s the sign of a really good poem, when you think, “Damn it, I wish I’d written that.”
Actually, that makes me think of your latest poetry collection, How to Be Happy Though Human (House of Anansi Press, 2020) and the opening poem “Hallelujah,” in which you find a disco ball in the rubbish bin along with the tea bags.
That’s true. I almost never return to poems I’ve written, but I’ve got that poem taped up on the wall here inside the food cupboard so I can remind myself of that moment. It’s next to a Jimmy Buffett quote: “But there’s booze in the blender / And soon it will render / That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.” I still have poems by the jug for me to learn from. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” by Emily Dickinson has probably been there for a couple of years. It’s time for me to get onto something new, I think.
It’s great to have poetry around the place. Probably ten years ago, my mum said to me, “I don’t know about your poetry. You’ve gone beyond me now. I can’t understand it.” I was really bummed out because she loves Sylvia Plath, she’s not a conservative reader. But in recent years she’s got a recipe holder in her kitchen. She has a book of mine there and she’ll have it open to a poem. She says she really enjoys that, because then she’ll be looking at a poem while she’s cooking and it’ll sink in.
Editing this collection gave me a chance to read like that—to go back to poems. I tend to read poems, freak out about how great they are, and share them with a whole bunch of people. Then a couple of days later I’ve moved on. It’s been really nice to go back and revisit poetry over a course of several months.
What else came out, in living with these poems?
I think the biggest signature of New Zealand poetry is an unpretentious voice trying to second-guess itself. The horror of being thought to be taking yourself too seriously is a national trait that comes through in our poetry. It has some fantastic results, but it can also be limiting. I think that’s why so many of these poems will introduce something and undercut it. If there’s a beautiful natural description or romantic gesture or big abstract thought, there seems to be a need to frame that as something you overheard on the bus. It’s like a superpower of the New Zealand poem: to introduce romantic and lyrical and profound philosophical ideas while also making a bit of a shrug, as if you are not fully accountable for having brought them into the poem.
Duckor-Jones’s “True Stories” has a line right in the middle of the poem that sums up this interplay: “I tell my overseas relatives that artists live in this town.”
In my commentary for that poem, I also quote the line about “R-rated whimsy & carefully selected naturalist beats.” The poet’s undermining, critiquing, and excusing his own poem, even as he’s writing it. That’s a feature of contemporary poetry—but I think it is a particularly strong thread in New Zealand poetry. Most of the poems in this collection smuggle in their seriousness.
One of the hallmarks of the experience of COVID for middle class New Zealand is that we can’t go overseas and no one from overseas can come here. That sense of isolation and distance, which I don’t normally experience in New Zealand at all, I see in Ash Davida Jane’s “haircut” and in quite a few of the other poems in the collection, too. All poems are odes in a way, but there’s definitely a feeling of grief-induced appreciation and love for the world in New Zealand poetry at the moment.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham is the author of the poetry chapbooks La belle dame avecs les mains vertes (Compound Press) and Ginesthoi (hard press). Her writing and art can be found in The Spinoff, Westerly, and Public Seminar, and in recent and upcoming exhibitions at Te Tuhi, Earlid, and Dunedin Public Art Gallery.