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Josiah Morgan and his collection of poetry, i’m still growing. (Design: Tina Tiller)
Josiah Morgan and his collection of poetry, i’m still growing. (Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksMarch 24, 2024

Why Josiah Morgan is one of Aotearoa’s finest young writers

Josiah Morgan and his collection of poetry, i’m still growing. (Design: Tina Tiller)
Josiah Morgan and his collection of poetry, i’m still growing. (Design: Tina Tiller)

David Herkt takes a close read of Josiah Morgan’s poetry collection, i’m still growing, and is delighted with what he finds.

Sometimes a young poet can be more sensitive to the spirit of the times than many older writers. To be unconstrained by tradition is a valuable thing when coupled with skill. Queer writing is no exception to the rule.

Breakthroughs in “saying the unsayable” were made in the 1980s and early 1990s, but then the genre, particularly in Aotearoa, gradually became conservative and unadventurous. It seemed there was nothing more to say.

Suddenly, Queer Writing had become safe. But then, enter Dead Bird Books and their stable of writers including the short-story writer, Samuel Te Kani, and now the poet, Josiah Morgan (Kāi Tahu, Ngāti Maniapoto)…

Morgan can justly claim many things with his new collection i’m still growing, including the immediacy of his erotics. It is a sensuality of connect and disconnect amid the materials provided by the times. It is beyond “stream of consciousness” – it is an artful freefall, coupling and uncoupling in a writerly world. 

Inside my eyelid is maple syrup. Cooks pancakes and

neglects to sunblock the pan. Mum and Dad go 

home. My curtains are always open for you. My pen

is blue. I stopped cumming for strange strangers. If 

I wanted you to think I’d gone I’d start reading H.G.

Wells. The invisible man and you know it. 

Goodnight, I love you, Twenty minutes later but

I’m still awake. It’s because I got hard…

Morgan’s style varies from poem to poem. He is a chameleon of purpose; his words, spacing, and layout mirror the frequent changes of voices and position. To be human is to be mobile. Morgan’s perspective can be intimate, first-person and vulnerable, or third-person, god-like, game-playing, and frequently caught in a sexual scenario whose intent the reader can only guess. 

Josiah Morgan and the cover of his collection, i’m still growing.

Morgan is also a tender observer of the “real world” whether it is a diaristic account of events, or the media-flow of named programming, movies, and their actors. He faces the situations that pass for personal relationships in an era of social distancing and technological mediation, while knowing and valuing the vulnerable proximity of the natural world.

                                                                                  … i wonder 

what it is like to be one of those bees               always trapped 

in our house

struggling against the windowpane            to get somewhere

             else and freer

it must be very confusing                               not to know 

that the new world is                                      closed

not to know         that it is on sale…

i’m still growing ostensibly consists of four “wings”, or parts, but in reality it is centred around one long three-act poem, ‘inside the castle’, previously published in a chapbook by Amphetamine Sulphate in Texas, USA. In style, the poems range from broadly straight-forward to condensed and intensely referential. They can be longish meditations or brevities. 

Morgan’s intelligent and skilful use of cultural linkage and the power of their juxtapositions are a fine net to hold a world – and to use to explore and envisage another’s skin. He has also read widely: the evidence is everywhere for an alert reader. 

In his marginal and endnotes, Morgan’s cited influences include the “transgressive” American poet and novelist, Dennis Cooper, author of the five-novel George Miles Cycle (who is thanked twice, both personally and professionally), Emily Brontë of Wuthering Heights, Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita and Ada, essayist William H. Gass, poet Frank O’Hara, and film-makers Gus van Sant and Peter Greenaway. It is a heady list.

Morgan’s poems are seldom “comfortable” poems, although they are always satisfying in their own terms. As indicated by the book’s title, these are works that still ring with the fevers and forces of adolescence. In places, they can be bluntly sexual. The figures of pornography and erotica are acted out and modified by life in the process. Illusory expectations ignited by media versions come face-to-face with the imperfections of “meat-life”.   

On occasion, Morgan’s poems can be unashamedly and necessarily of their personal moment, but it is worthwhile recalling a William S. Burroughs quote from his 1986 book, The Cat Inside: “You want adolescent sex, you have to pay for it in adolescent fear, shame, confusion. In order to enjoy something, you have to be there. You can’t just sweep in from the desert, dearie.” i’m still growing is a collection of “being-there”. It is a waymark on a young poet’s route, a first gathering of age.

Of the book’s contents, ‘inside the castle’ is particularly note-worthy and it might well be the great landmark poem of the Twenty-Teens in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is a long poem of multitudes. One voice will merge into others, sentence-structures break, words themselves fragment, everything is possible, and nothing is true.

I wish I was dull,

I wished I was the ocean.

I licked naughty books.

I locked away a man’s foot.

I shut up my mouth.

I could do what I want.

I wish I was stolen.

I cried without crying.

I knew she was mine.

I said to my mine.

I wish you were him.

I wish I was a her.

I licked orange ice cream.

This is language at play – but seriously. There is always an intent, whether it is to find the border or to puncture it. While it can delight, and does, there are other settings where new emotions overwhelm, where the mess of childhood seems to be too close, and where the heat of adolescence seems to be too hot for words to bear.

Some of Morgan’s erotics are derived from the settings and playlets of BDSM, bluntly quoting the demands of need, order, and submission from conversation panes of dating apps. In other sections of ‘inside the castle’, lexical surfaces are perforated, or cut-up and folded-in using the classic techniques of the early 1960’s Beat Writers, William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin.

This is a poetics of feel and touch, of erection, orgasm, and all the messy complications of human life. Morgan is unafraid of the range of possibilities, and builds upon them, even if it can require dizzying steps into the unknown. 

Sometimes, Morgan takes his reader to unfamiliar places at a breathless tempo. Images accelerate through thought. Sensations quiver. This is adolescence or early manhood on Ritalin, philosophical musings on speed, observations scattered through an ADHD focus, relationships on adrenaline – with everything set against split-second glimpses of the contemporary world.

Hell when you touch me I feel like I’m in hell.

The most shallow one, a bad vine climbs the wall.

You keep trying to touch me when I’m nearly asleep, I

feel like hell when I’m in you touch me. Just like all

the other times when someone tries to write

something radical and I’m not buying it like when

the boat kidnaps my love off the beach like when I 

have to chase my love down and even though

I took swimming lessons I’m really bad at swimming

like when you touch me like when you tell me I’m not

allowed to touch anyone else like when you’re high

and we are locked out of the house like all the other 

times I feel I’m in hell.

Morgan’s poems are seldom simplistic works (though they can be direct) nor are they hermetic (impervious to interpretation), but the voice of an authentic poet can always be heard and requires notice. Morgan is aware of tradition, that sine qua non of truly communicative power in poetry, and he can use it, both because he knows it and because he needs to speak of many things. He will also comment upon it with frequency.

Strictly, most of what I have to say has been said

before. I know it in my blood and on my bookshelves.

If I had something new to say none of you would

know what to do with it so it would sit on display to touch

sometimes and say you’re so proud of, I’d need to

know you’ve read it even though you never wanted


As in all new and potent verse, it takes a reader a moment to adjust to Morgan’s world – to his locutions, his dissections, and his reconnections – but this adjustment quickly becomes a pleasure. Recent poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand has tended towards the declarative with a ‘commercial’ twist, taking the worst of many mid- and late-Twentieth Century American poets and making their replayed sloganeering confessional the standard-style of the present zeitgeist. 

Morgan, however, has gone further and has taken others as his exemplars, in the same way as Samuel Te Kani, author of the story-collection, Please, Call Me Jesus, also published by Dead Bird Books. They are both artists who have absorbed unexpected writers and surprising genres as their precursors, finding fruitful perspectives in older works. 

Te Kani wrote individualised erotica for private paying readers during Covid lockdown. Morgan ventures to the transgressive boundaries of literature from Dennis Cooper to D.A.F. Marquis de Sade, and film-makers including Pier Paolo Pasolini and Dario Argento, for some of his impact. The process of smelting his influences and moulding them into a true work of original literature can be witnessed first-hand in this collection.

Dead Bird Books is creating a reputation for being one of the most adventurous of Aotearoa New Zealand’s small presses. Morgan’s i’m still growing can only add to its reputation. Few young contemporary writers have mastered the long 40-page multi-faceted poem as fluently as Morgan has evidenced in ‘inside the castle’. Few aim so high – and fewer succeed so well. 

i’m still growing by Josiah Morgan ($30, Dead Bird Books) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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