Unprecedented: New Zealanders buy large quantities of local poetry

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Poet and editor Ash Davida Jane on a most delicious boom.

Additional report: Catherine Woulfe

It’s 2022 in Aotearoa and we’re living in “the year of poetry”, according to people on Twitter and also Pip Adam at the launch of new books by Chris Tse and Rebecca Hawkes. Like Rebecca said in a conversation with Paula Green“2022 is, for all the general horror of current events, a murderous year for poetry.”

It’s an easy claim to make, given the quantity and quality of new poetry that is springing up. Fortunately, and poetically, this is an assertion unlikely to be refuted by solid statistics: booksellers are notoriously reluctant to divulge sales figures. Wellington Unit almost sent some to us and then denied, even though we were only after a percentage change.

But Marion Castree, the store’s buyer for Aotearoa’s fiction and non-fiction, was able to provide a quota. “I’ve seen this growth… It’s really exciting. It’s quite incredible. My [poetry] the table is not big enough! I need another whole table to do it justice and we would double our sales.

She adds that “poetry used to be kind of a serious thing, it still was about three years ago, and now it’s commonplace. And the poetry is pretty eclectic too. It’s not like everyone writes the same thing the same way. It’s really very exciting and it does not stop. People buy for themselves and for gifts, she says. “Sharing the vibe, sharing what’s hot, like you might with a novel. [Poetry books] aren’t so cheap anymore either. They are a good $25.

Here’s a rundown of the hard data to go with: Peruse the weekly Unity Books bestseller lists and you’ll find a glut of local poetry over the past six months. by Chris Tse Minority super model appeared four times, including a debut at number one in Wellington; Rebecca Hawkes had three hits with meat lovers, peaking at number two. Khadro Mohamed landed the top spot with his debut album We’re All Made of Lightning. The following week, Jordan Hamel did the same with Everyone Is Everyone But You. Michaela Keeble and Anahera Gildea hit the list with a bang, with their Surrender and Sedition collections, both via new Taraheke Press. Anna Jackson’s book Actions and Travels: How Poetry Works (which was on poetry rather than of) has made the Auckland list three times, which is extraordinary – Wellington is usually the home of poetry. Keep in mind that these lists include huge international names like Sally Rooney and Douglas Stuart, as well as non-fiction that regularly sells out even novels.

There are also poetic foments in more traditional stores, as evidenced by recent Nielsen listings. 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 Chungand Ockham winner Joanna Preston.

New Bestselling Poetry by Peter Olds (Image: Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

Part of the boom, in independent bookstores anyway, is related to launches. Launches seem to be getting bigger and more glamorous, as evidenced by the joint Tse-Hawkes launch at Meow in April. The outfits, the tears, the karaoke rendition of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula” – it had never been done before. Rebecca is perhaps the first poetess to change her costume onstage mid-launch, removing an outer layer like a butterfly losing its cocoon while goading the crowd, do you want to see the poet emerge?

But it’s not just launches that drive sales, Castree says. She’s noticed background poetry is now selling too – her shelves of older books that she says functioned like a museum are now coming out, “which is interesting because it means people are talking about poets and poetry” .

“They’ll buy old Glenn Colquhouns, they’ll buy old Bill Manhires, they’ll buy old Airini Beautrais poetry, you know what I mean? They live it and talk about it, I think.

“People come in and surround the [poetry] table. They are looking at. They don’t think “Oh, that sounds cute”, they think “I better read this a bit, this is serious and I’m reading it now, because I want to be in it”.

There’s a dazzling array of poetry on offer this year, with stunning collections both on and off the charts. Here are a few of my favorites, and others I’m looking forward to:

The above Minority super model (AUP) swept away crowds of adoring fans. Chris’s book has it all – wit, pathos, glamour, lyricism and a poem in which the poet explains bukkake to his mother.

A second collection by 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 and little-known historical figure. The Surgeon’s Brain contains not only the life of James Barry, but the mind of Oscar Upperton, in the skill of his writing and his keen sense of the world.

Joan Fleming’s latest, Song of Less (Cordite), is as much a page-turner as poetry ever can be. It’s a quick read, but the kind you’ll be thinking about for years. Yes, I know Joan no longer lives in New Zealand, but her first books were published here and I wanted to talk about Song of Less. I read it one weekend with five other poets. We spent the trip reading, swimming and talking about poetry, but this book is what I remember most. I haven’t read anything like it before or since.

Erik Kennedy’s second feature Another Beautiful Day Indoors (THWUP) oscillates between urgency and sophisticated humour. He may also be one of the few writers in 2022 who can produce a poem with a rhyme scheme that still feels relevant (sorry to other rhyming poets).

A standout already this year is Essa may ranapiri’s Echidna (THWUP), an amorphous collection of queer mythologies and brilliance. It’s hard not to overuse the word “groundbreaking” when talking about poetry, but Essa’s first book-trading really did something new, and Echidna feels like her wise, sexy older brother. 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 of Harry Josephine Giles’ incredible performance piece of the same name.

As mentioned earlier, publishing collective Taraheke has blessed us with new books by Anahera Gildea and Michaela Keeble. Sedition (Gildea) is powerful and stimulating in the sense of the verb. As in, poems reach out to you from the page with a challenge – think harder, listen harder. I read it when I was sick in bed and in the mist 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 rooted somewhere when the earth isn’t yours. It is a collection of insightful and tender poems that are acutely aware of the climate crisis as a colonial creation.

Cover of a poetry book dominated by white space, with a single wooden stake.
New hit poetry by Michaela Keeble (Image: Supplied; Design: Tina Tiller)

I can feel the other books staring at me from the shelves – books I haven’t had time to read yet, but have heard the praises of those who have. Books like Tūnui | Comet by Robert Sullivan, Frances Samuel’s Museum, Michael Stevens’ Night School and Gorse Poems by Chris Holdaway. I’m sure there are more missing, and it’s only July.

And the year of poetry is far from over. We Are Babies Press has announced shorts for November, a first from Tate Fountain. Tate’s devoted readership grows with each poem she publishes. We also have a new Nick Ascroft book to look forward to – The Stupefying (THWUP). Nick has the best vocabulary of any writer in the country. THWUP has just announced another album for this year, People Person by Joanna Cho.

This week sees the launch of a poetry anthology on climate change, from Auckland University Press, edited by four poets who also managed to release their own books this year (Kennedy, Hamel, Hawkes and Ranapiri). No Other Place to Stand is proof of the demand for new and fresh poetic takes on today’s 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 might be daunting to watch all those other career-defining books coming out at the same time as yours. I think it stems from the idea that New Zealand readers only have the attention span for, say, one dynamic young poet at a time. But the Ockhams are only one day a year; the other 364 are not like that. This is not a competition. It is, more and more, a conversation.

I don’t know what led to this sudden flood of brilliant new poetry. Everyone may have had more time to write during the shutdowns – but most writers I know have struggled to do anything during this time. Poetry does not mix well with inertia, at least as I know it. It could be that the accumulation of new writing, and the space given to it, over the past few years has resulted in this explosion of great works. We can’t even say it’s unexpected, exactly. The trend has accelerated over the past five years. We can thank poets like Hera Lindsay Bird and Tayi Tibble, poets who made people sit up and listen who usually didn’t pay attention to poetry.

Part of that, I think, is also the warm glow of Aotearoa’s community of writers right now – so nurturing to young poets and so ready and eager to encounter something new. I’m part of a poetry book club where we share poems we’ve found and liked with each other. We meet about once a month for an evening with poets springing from the work of other poets, sharing and uplifting voices and drinking wine. The poetry scene in general looks 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 have published mostly debut poetry books so far. Despite these factors, the community shows up again and again for us. The support for new poets and new editions in Aotearoa is monumental. And that support, of course, lives on – so we can see that 2023 is an even bigger year for poetry than 2022.

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