Poet and publisher Ash Davida Jane on a most delightful boom.
Additional reporting: Catherine Woulfe
It is 2022 in Aotearoa and we are living through “the year of poetry”, according to people on Twitter and also Pip Adam at the launch of Chris Tse and Rebecca Hawkes’ new books. As Rebecca said in conversation with Paula Green, “2022 is, despite all the overall horribleness of Current Events, set to be a killer year for poetry.”
It’s an easy claim to make, given the quantity and quality of new poetry springing forth. Happily, and poetically, it’s a claim unlikely to be shot down with hard statistics: booksellers are notoriously loathe to hand out sales figures. Unity Wellington almost sent us some then reneged, even though we were only after percentage change.
But Marion Castree, the store’s buyer for Aotearoa fiction and nonfiction, was able to provide quotage. “I have seen that growth … It’s just really thrilling. It’s kind of amazing. My [poetry] table’s not big enough! I need another whole table to do it justice and we’d double our sales.”
She adds that “poetry used to be a kind of earnest thing, it really still was about three years ago, and now it’s rife. And the poetry is quite eclectic, too. It’s not like everyone’s writing the same thing in the same way. It’s really quite exciting and it’s not stopping.” People are buying for themselves and for gifts, she says. “Sharing the vibe, sharing what’s hot, like you might do with a novel. [Poetry books] are not that cheap any more either. They’re a good $25.”
Here’s a shot of quantitative data to go with: trawl through the weekly Unity Books bestseller lists and you’ll find a glut of local poetry over the last six months. Chris Tse’s Super Model Minority popped up four times, including a debut at number one in Wellington; Rebecca Hawkes had three hits with Meat Lovers, peaking at number two. Khadro Mohamed casually nabbed the number one spot with her debut We’re All Made of Lightning. The following week Jordan Hamel did the same with Everyone is Everyone Except You. Michaela Keeble and Anahera Gildea hit the list together with a bang, with their collections Surrender and Sedition, both via new press Taraheke. Anna Jackson’s book Actions and Travels: How Poetry Works (which was on poetry rather than of) made the Auckland lists three times, which is extraordinary – it’s usually Wellington that’s the poetry hotbed. Keep in mind that these lists include huge international names like Sally Rooney and Douglas Stuart, as well as the nonfiction that routinely outsells even the novels.
There’s poetic foment over in the more mainstream stores too, as demonstrated by recent Nielsen lists. Last week Peter Olds and John Gibb had collections at numbers nine and 10 in the fiction category. Tse, Hawkes and Hamel have also appeared on recent Nielsen lists, as have Erik Kennedy and Cadence Chung, and Ockham winner Joanna Preston.
Part of the boom, in the indie bookstores anyway, is to do with launches. Launches seem to be getting bigger and more glamorous, as evidenced by the Tse-Hawkes joint launch at Meow in April. The outfits, the tears, the spoken-word karaoke rendition of Rob Zombie’s ‘Dragula’ – it’d never been done before. Rebecca may be the first poet to ever do a costume change on stage in the middle of the launch, removing an outer layer like a butterfly shedding its cocoon while goading the crowd, do you want to see the poet emerge?
But there’s more than launches driving the sales uptick, says Castree. She’s noticed that backlist poetry is selling now too – her shelves of older books that she jokes used to function like a museum are now walking out the door, “which is interesting, because it means people are talking about poets and poetry”.
“They buy old Glenn Colquhouns, they’ll buy old Bill Manhires, they’ll buy Airini Beautrais’ old poetry, know what I mean? They’re kind of living it and talking it, I think.
“People come in and circle the [poetry] table. They’re looking. They’re not thinking ‘Oh that looks cute’, they’re thinking ‘I’d better read a bit of this, it’s serious stuff and I’m reading it now, because I want to be in on it’.”
There is a dazzling array of poetry on offer this year, with amazing collections both on and off the charts. Here are some of my favourites, and more I’m looking forward to:
The aforementioned Super Model Minority (AUP) has swept crowds of adoring fans off their feet. Chris’ book has everything – wit, pathos, glamour, lyricism and a poem in which the poet explains bukkake to his mother.
A second collection from Oscar Upperton, The Surgeon’s Brain (THWUP) has a strong narrative arc, telling a story outside of the author’s own life. Dr James Barry is a fascinating historical figure, and one that isn’t hugely well known. The Surgeon’s Brain contains not just James Barry’s life, but the mind of Oscar Upperton, in the deftness of his writing and keen sense of the world.
Joan Fleming’s latest, Song of Less (Cordite), is as much a page-turner as poetry can ever be. It’s a quick read, but the kind you’ll be thinking about for years. Yes, I know Joan doesn’t live in New Zealand anymore, but her first books were published here and I wanted to talk about Song of Less. I read it on a weekend away with five other poets. We spent the trip reading, swimming and talking about poetry, but this book is what I remember more than anything else. I’ve read nothing like it before or since.
Erik Kennedy’s second full length collection Another Beautiful Day Indoors (THWUP) oscillates between urgency and sophisticated humour. He may also be one of the few writing in 2022 who can produce a poem with a rhyme scheme that still feels current (sorry to the other rhyming poets).
A stand-out already this year is essa may ranapiri’s Echidna (THWUP), an amorphous collection of mythologies and queer brilliance. It’s hard not to overuse the word “groundbreaking” when talking about poetry but essa’s first book ransack really did something brand new, and Echidna feels like its wise, hot older sibling. The poems are in direct conversation with so many other poets, poems and stories, from Tayi Tibble’s Poukahangatus, to Whiti Hereaka’s Kurangaituku, to the Drone from Harry Josephine Giles’ incredible performance piece of the same name.
As mentioned earlier, the publishing collective Taraheke has blessed us with brand new books from Anahera Gildea and Michaela Keeble. Sedition (Gildea) is powerful, and challenging in the verb sense. As in, the poems reach out at you from the page with a challenge – to think harder, listen harder. I read it when I was sick in bed and in the haze it felt like it was moving through me, not the other way around.
Surrender (Keeble) is an exploration of whiteness, and the desire to be grounded somewhere when the land doesn’t belong to you. It’s an insightful and tender collection of poems that are keenly aware of the climate crisis as one of colonial making.
I can feel the other books looking at me from the shelves – books I haven’t had time to read yet, but whose praises I’ve heard sung from those who have. Books like Tūnui | Comet by Robert Sullivan, Frances Samuel’s Museum, Michael Stevens’ Night School and Chris Holdaway’s Gorse Poems. I’m sure there are more I’m missing, and we’re only in July.
And the year of poetry is far from over. We Are Babies Press has announced Short Films for November, a debut from Tate Fountain. Tate’s audience of devoted readers grows with every poem she releases. We also have a new book from Nick Ascroft to look forward to – The Stupefying (THWUP). Nick has the best vocabulary of any writer in the country. THWUP has just announced another debut for this year, Joanna Cho’s People Person.
This week sees the launch of an anthology of climate change poetry, from Auckland University Press, edited by four poets who’ve also managed to bring out their own books this year (Kennedy, Hamel, Hawkes and Ranapiri). No Other Place to Stand is proof of the demand for new, fresh poetic takes on the current world, including the climate crisis. These days, if your literary festival doesn’t have an event on writing about climate change, is it even really a festival?
If you’re the author of one of these books, I guess it could be disheartening to look at all these other career-defining works coming out at the same time as yours. I think that comes from the idea that readers in New Zealand only have the attention span for, say, one vibrant young poet at a time. But the Ockhams are only one day a year; the other 364 are nothing like it. This is not a competition. It is, increasingly, a conversation.
I don’t know what led to this sudden flood of brilliant new poetry. It could be that everyone had more time to write during lockdowns – but most of the writers I know struggled to get anything done in that time. Poetry doesn’t do well with inertia, at least as I know it. It could be that the buildup of new writing, and the space that’s been made for it, over the past few years has culminated in this outburst of great work. We can’t even say it’s unexpected, exactly. The trend’s been growing over the past five years. We can thank poets like Hera Lindsay Bird and Tayi Tibble, poets who made people who wouldn’t usually pay attention to poetry sit up and listen.
Part of it, I think, is also the warm glow of Aotearoa’s writing community right now – so nurturing of young poets and so ready and willing to encounter something new. I’m part of a poetry book club where we share poems we’ve found and loved with each other. We gather about once a month for an evening with poets gushing over other poets’ work, sharing and uplifting voices, and drinking wine. The poetry scene in general feels like a large-scale version of that. Running We Are Babies Press, I see it even more. We’re still new – barely a year old – and we’ve published mostly debut poetry collections so far. Despite those factors, the community shows up for us again and again. The support for new poets and new publishing in Aotearoa is monumental. And that support, of course, is self-perpetuating – so we may see that 2023 is an even bigger year for poetry than 2022.