Looking at Aotearoa-New Zealand poetry — from afar

Looking at Aotearoa-New Zealand poetry — from afar

Kia ora ano (Hello again.)

Yunno, I've often wondered just how poetry in Aotearoa-New Zealand is viewed from abroad: not from Anglo-American-Australian vistas (for there is too much in common with their (post-)colonialist-imposed poetic striates here anyway) but from other countries. Countries that are steadily replacing the United Kingdom as fount for new arrivals here. Countries where the poetry is not necessarily in English language, is more empathetic to the tropes and styles of indigenous verse; where fancy footwork language manoeuvres are not the 'norm.'

And I guess that I have been lucky in actually living in several countries for several years and to have made acquaintances with poets living there. Fine poets all. Let's see what they have to say about 'the poetry scene' where they live and whether Aotearoa-New Zealand poetry is ever/even a factor to them and their's...

Md. Haji SallehMuhammad Haji Salleh is a former Poet Laureate of Malaysia. He is a gifted elder statesman poet who is quite capable of writing in the English tongue if pushed, but who has made a conscious decision to write in Bahasa Melayu most of the time - as evidenced in his articulate Afterword to my own co-edited book, English Language as Hydra. I first encountered Muhammad Haji Salleh when I was living in Brunei Darussalam last century and indeed included him in the first ever anthology of Bruneian poets writing in English, in a book co-edited with Alan Chamberlain entitled Under the Canopy (more of which later.)

When I asked him what he is doing these days, he replied, 'I have been retired from the University for almost 3 years but am an emeritus professor in the Science University in Penang. I am also an adjunct professor in two universities. I relish this retirement as as can do what I want, read my own choices and write in a wider space of experience and depth. Mostly poetry but also collecting my essays together. A selection of my translated Malay poems is coming out next year, and two collections of monthly essays on international literature and travels also most probably will come out nest year.'

'But I travel a lot. I am writing this from the Frankfurt Bookfair and will be in Bali for the Tabanan Poetry Festival next month and a few more academic meets next year.'

I also asked about poetry in Malaysia, both written and performed in Bahasa Melayu and in English. 'Literature  did  not find an interest among the ministers of education in Malaysia these past 30 years. But ironically, in spite of this,  it can be said that it is  quite alive and well.  Poetry, a favourite genre,  is written by many poets  who are published in the literary columns of the Sunday newspapers and monthly magazines. Annual competitions by different institutions have  further helped  its growth. Young writers compete to find a name and subsequently, a publisher. There are several poets, men and women, who are writing at present. One can perhaps note  the more  important  poets like Lutfi Ishak , Rosli K Matari and Jaslani Matlani. Besides them I would include the  names of Ramzah Dambul, Ridzuan Harun and Lim Kim Hui as  substantial new poets.'

Muhammad Haji Salleh continued, 'But what may also be added  is that poetry,  composed by various young poets  and posted on the internet (sastera e-sajak/literature e-poetry),  is a new mixed genre of  verbal and colourful as well as imaginatively graphic means of  expression. Besides these internet poets there is also  a new force – the indie poets – who seem to be rebelling against the powers that be and ways of the politicians,  the encrusted social and religious conservatives. While they provide a breath of fresh air they also tend to be quite wild in their expression and language,  I would  say, something  that does not celebrate the beauty and possibilities of that language.'

My favourite poem of his remains Hari Raya Rain, which we included in the Under the Canopy collection (and yes it had a few non-Bruneian poets included.)

          hari raya rain

i decorated my house for hari raya                                                                                                            

    the paint fresh in the morning sun                                                                                                         

    after the prayer after dawn                                                                                                                        

i waited for my friends in anticipation

the children were loud and bright

    in their new clothes and shoes

    the day will flutter in hues

till when the clouds come

my friends were few in the village

    only the farmer, the carpenter and the priest

    i was waiting for khamis*

when the rains came

the flowers watched silently in the vase

    hearing the rain tapping on the attap

    will the sun ever come to wrap

our short minutes with colour?

i waited for the guests

    till the rain grew black

    i knew i had other days

but today is hari raya

[*khamis – the name of a friend]

 I [Rapatahana] admire the simplicity, the evocation of village life, the form as a traditional Malay pantun. Sangat bagus kawan saya. Terima kasih banyak.

Finally, Haji Salleh - who has toured Aotearoa-New Zealand as recently as 2014 - pointed out that, 'My relation with NZ poets is limited. I am in contact with you and John Long. I wish it was more extended...' I believe Kiwis could learn a great deal from a study of Malay verse per se, by the way.

Arif Khudairi is also an 'old' acquaintance, whom I first met back in the late 1990s in Brunei Darussalam, where he still works and resides. Arif Khudairi He is also a very busy man: 'Writing poetry; Writing about poetry, literature, translation, and teaching Arabic as second language; Writing papers and articles; Translating poetry books into Arabic, including a book titled “The Royal Poet” which I translated into Arabic for Pusat Sejarah Brunei, and will be published In February2016; Lecturing on Arabic literature and my literature experience in several cities including Cairo, Osaka, Nairobi, Struga, Chinghai and Kuala Lumpur...Writing books on Literary studies, studies on teaching Arabic to non-Arabs, the art of translation, and comparative literature...Working on publishing a poetry magazine in Brunei Darussalam (in Arabic, English and Malay); Editing the international journal of Arabic studies; Reading poetry in international poetry festivals; Writing and publishing series of Articles on Malay poetry in translation in al-Hilal and el-Majalah magazines in Cairo, Egypt...'

'As for English poetry in Brunei, it is still the same as I told you before. Although there are [an] increasing number of Bruneian poets who write English poetry, sadly, they seem to work in isolation and there is a need of conducting a new project like the one you successfully did in 1998.There are also some Bruneian poets who write some poems in English like Yahya M.S., and there are some more poets who seek to have their Malay anthologies translated into English in order to be internationally known, or to receive prizes from some Asian countries. I am sure you can find a better picture of the Bruneian poetry in English from English schools in Brunei like JAIS, some English newspapers like Borneo Bulletin and Brunei Times, and from Bruneian poets who write English poetry like Irwan Haji Abdel Rahman. I myself tried to explore the Bruneian talented poets in my project Inspirasi (2008) which was published as an anthology in Arabic, English and Malay. In my second project, Poetry Magazine, I have tried to encourage young talented Bruneian poets to write and publish their poetry.' Of course, Bruneian poets also continue to write in a vareity of traditional forms, in Bahasa Melayu. Arif Khudairi is also represented in the Under the Canopy selection, whilst Irwan Haji Abdel Rahman is not only in there too, but worked with me at SM Sayyidina Husain - along with James Norcliffe! A veritable confluence of poets in one school. A poem from Arif is below.

I Love Yo

I love you for your eyes make me love

The seas, and the rivers, and the skies,

And dream about you all the time.


I love you for your lips make me love

The roses, the flowers, and the tulips,

And fly in the sky as a drunken butterfly.


I love you for your smile makes me love

The sun, the moon, and the stars,

And wait for the dawn every day in delight.


I love you for your love make me swim

In ecstasy, in a river in paradise

Made of musk, of charm, and dream.

Arif Khudairi (2001)

Tin Shui Wai

Middle-aged men, now unemployed,

gather in parks and watch older men

play chess. They say they feel guilty

for not bringing money home.


Divorced women on the bus talk

about taking whole-day bus rides

to while away time and how it’s better

than being alone at home, facing four walls.


Grannies who have outlived their husbands

and put their hair permanently in buns

sit on a wooden bench and ask me:

‘Who are you waiting for?

Why are you so thin?’

Tammy Ho

And again, rather sadly, an overseas poet in another Asian country -  where Aotearoa-New Zealand also lies, whether 'we' believe it or not as our essential geographical locale - has few if any dealings with Kiwi poets - 'Unfortunately, I have no connection to New Zealand poets and poetry. Maybe none, other than via you! But I hope to have the chance to visit New Zealand one day, and meet with some of the talented poets there,' laments Arif Khudairi (whom, by the way, is Egyptian.) Tidak ada masalah kawan saya. Satu hari. Inshallah.

Tammy Ho , originator and key editor of the fine Asian Cha, has had rather much more to do with poets and poetry in Aotearoa-New Zealand - and not just me this time! Notes Tammy, 'One of my very first published poems, Newest, Tallest, Hottest, the Most London was published in Poetry NZ. I still remember the thrill and disbelief when I opened the acceptance letter. Also, my undergraduate thesis supervisor, who gave me lots of encouragement when I first started writing, was from New Zealand.'

She also has been rather busy of late, 'My first collection of poetry, Hula Hooping (Chameleon Press), ‘fifteen years between pen and press’, was published in April 2015, and I am currently in the process of putting together a second collection. In early October, I gave a talk at a local literary collective, Ragged Claws, on writing political poetry. In the talk, apart from discussing the intersection between politics and poetry (and literature at large), I also made reference to my own political works, written over the past decade. I also have a few more events forthcoming: In November, I will be giving a reading on “Poetry and Intimacies” at Kubricks, a local independent bookstore, and I will also be on an International Hong Kong Literary Festival panel about the Umbrella Movement and poetry with three other Hong Kong poets (James Shea, Collier Nogues and Nicholas Wong).'

Now, I am fairly au fait with poetry scenes in Hong Kong, but not by any means all, of course. I was the instigator and co-editor of Outloud Too in 2014 - an anthology of the fine poets reading at the monthly Poetry Outloud, including Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, of course. So Tammy's update is particularly interesting for me, 'The Hong Kong poetry scene is very vibrant at the moment. Different poetry groups including Poetry OutLoud and Peel Street Poetry continue to provide a supportive environment for local writers. There are also several presses that publish English poetry such as Chameleon Press, MCCM Creations [publishers of both Outloud Too and co-publishers of Rapatahana's latest collection, Atonement] and Proverse Press. Local universities continue to nurture creative writers as well. The creative writing programme at Hong Kong Baptist University, for example, offers bilingual courses and provides an excellent platform for students to develop their writing. I am also pleased to say that students at my department (Department of English) have also taken the initiative to publish a literary journal, Edge: HKBU Creative Journal.'

Tammy HoShe concludes, however, with, 'If there was one small thing I would like to change about the Hong Kong writing scene, however, is that I would like to see more genuine and meaningful interaction between poets who write in Chinese and those who write in English', which I am in complete agreement with.There are poets and editors within Hong Kong trying to bridge this gap and here I am thinking especially of Chelton Ho and his strenuous efforts with Sound and Rhyme.

By the way, Tammy Ho's poem Tin Shui Wai is above this dialogue - it is also a place where I lived for many years and where we return to, when we go back home to Hong Kong. Tammy is alo included in my own co-edited follow up to English Language as Hydra, entitled Why English? Confronting the Hydra, due out soon...Tammy's own first language is Cantonese. [Tammy's photo is by Sha'ianne Molas Lawas]

Now, Kit Kelen, Professor of English at the University of Macao, bears no introduction to Jacket 2 readers, for he is a well-known Australian poet, given that he has now been living in Macao for a considerable number of years. And yes, he is a further personal acquaintance of mine and a rather good poet to boot. He also is CEO of ASM/Flying Islands , who co-published my own Atonement earlier this year.

Now Kit has been decidedly difficult to communicate with recently, as he has taken a year off to travel to Europe - as he enlightens us here, 'Right now I'm in Norway, at the Messen artists' residency in a little industrial town on the Hardanger Fjord. I'm climbing the mountain behind me most days and trying to draft a poem every day for a new series, and generally getting the dust and smog of Macao out of my system. Of course the Macao-centered poetry business goes on even here and when I get back there will be much to do. The pocket book series is now up to 34 volumes I think, with half a dozen new ones on the drawing board, hopefully for publication next year. No New Zealanders in next year's list at this point but we're always open to suggestions. There are several new large anthologies on the way too. The next will be the collection Writing to the Wire I'm editing with Dan Disney and to be published by UWA Press next year. It's Australian poets responding to Australia's asylum seeker situation. I plan to be bringing a bunch of translators (various languages) to University of Canberra mid-year next year to translate Australian poets. It would be great to do that sort of thing in Aotearoa too if there's interest in doing something like that.'

In this succinct summary Kit touches on various aspects of his several Macao poetry enterprises: his pocket book series incoporating newer poets as well as more established ones, and not all writing in English language by any means, whilst also publishing poets from beyond Macao; the continual sets of translated poetical work - generally but not exclusively into Chinese language; the copious collations of Australian poets and writers...he is a patron of poetry personified. And did I mention that he was also one of the instigators of Poetry Outloud in Hong Kong? And that he runs Wonderbook, an online poetry site...? He is yet another busy man.

And yes, Kit Kelen does involve several Kiwi poets in his projects, as with his meritorious 2012 project Notes for the Translators whereby poets literally supplied a poem and some notes so as to enable a translation into Chinese, and 2013's When the Moon is Swimming Naked...

Day Thirty Four

Alder Bay

mackerel mouth
bright lit

sun's what makes magnificent
take up a rock and be there

fjord's a mirror creased with seeing
it would be flat but for the birds

the bicycle of flowers rusts
the season draws our circle close

glint hook
cast cold eye down for fish

funnel of smoke last sunstruck
the ocean beyond us is night  

Kit Kelen

 Kit Kelen





                                  Kit Kelen acts surprised…more emails from Rapatahana!

Reid Mitchell, an Americano, is another expatriate poet, who has been residing and surviving in Mainland PR China for several years now, with frequent visits to Hong Kong. Despite what he claims here, he is a particularly succinct and cogent poet, most particularly with regard to his nuanced poems concerning Chinese historical personages. Reid goes on, ' I'm just a journeyman poet, writing when I can and sending poems out when I have the nerve.  While I have been very supported by poets in Hong Kong, I don't have anybody around me to work with, which may mean that I underrate my poems at times and overrate them at others. But then again, who the hell doesn't?'                   Reid Mitchell

For such a 'journeyman poet' Mitchell is published widely in Asia, as here, 'Recent publications include these:  “High Water (for Qiu Jin),” “In Hong Kong,” and “I Smell a Familiar Hurricane in Guang Zhou,” Eastlit, March 2015.  “Public Business—Ming Dynasty,”  Asia Literary Review, September 2015.  “A Model Revolutionary State,” and “I Think It's Today,”  Eastlit, October 2015. ' Most of these came to me as responses to my reading of Chinese history—I've been working my way through the fairly recent multi-volume Harvard history of the Chinese Dynasties.  Two of them, though, try to blend my New Orleans background with my sense of Guangdong—same bullfrogs croaking all night long.  As the hippies used to say, "whereever  you go, there you are."                   

Reid continues cogently, 'You ask about the Chinese mainland poetry scene.  If you mean anglophone poetry, I don't believe there is a mainland scene as compared to a Shanghai scene and a Beijing scene.  For example, in Beijing I know Edward Ragg, an Englishman who teaches at Tsinghua, who published a very nice book, A Force that Takes, with Cinnamon Press back in 2013.  There is an English language scene around the bookstore Bookworm.  Shanghai has the magazine Far Enough East and its associated press...There used to be rumors of a scene and a magazine in Chengdu but I've never confirmed this; my emails were never answered [I believe Mitchell is talking about MaLa Literary Journal here, which may have ceased to exist...]. Lucky for me, I spent a year teaching at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, where Professor DAI Fan is putting together a remarkable English language Creative Writing program, which hires young MFA graduates—and once an old one, me—to teach, works in association with Australian MFA programs, and invites foreign writers to visit China.  It's a program that is well-worth watching and it's high time they get some New Zealanders.' [My stress.] Reid Mitchell has fairly unlikely ever heard of Rewi Alley, a renowned Sinophile, as well as a poet in his own write/right...one stand-out Kiwi as regards publishing not just his own poems but also a good deal of PR China poetry.

When asked about his connection to Aotearoa-New Zealand poets and poetry, Reid Mitchell answered, 'I've yet to come to New Zealand.  The two New Zealand poets I know—that I can think of right now—are you and Blair Reeve, a poet living in Hong Kong, who is particularly interested in sound.  Last I heard him, Blair was working on a series of portraits of jazz saxophone players in which he recreates their distinctive approaches to soloing.  They sound fantastic but I haven't looked at them on the page.  That's a problem and has been one for many years now, hasn't it?  Poetry, which originated as an oral form, is more highly regarded when written down.'

I [Rapatahana]  have, of course, mentioned Blair Reeve elsewhere and can vouch for the fact he is an arch-performance poet who is very much involved in delivery, sound, speed - who does not read from anything, speaks instead. He is carving out quite a niche as a performer.[A further New Zealand poet resident in Hong Kong is Marcus Turver, by the way, who has also produced fine poetry over the years.]

Reid Mitchell's recent publishing sorties reminds me to make particular mention of Asia Literary Review and the mahi [work] of Martin Alexander, its chief editor and an excellent poet himself, as evidenced by his inclusion - and Blair's and Reid's and Marcus' - in Outloud Too. Recently ALR has undergone a regeneretion and has also published a joint venture with The Griffith Review, an Antipodean sortie which included at least one excellent Kiwi poet, namely Siobhan Harvey. While the mention of Eastlit, a Thailand-based zine, reminds me also of the sterling work over the years of Jerome Brooke, based in Pattaya and publisher of a fair selection of my own work...reasons of space preclude me including more on these just-mentioned nomenclatures and their views. Next time, eh. I also feel that more scope need be given to PR Chinese language poetry and stylizations, as published in magazines such as Pangolin House, as just one example...And I will dedicate a future commentary entirely to poetry in thePhilippines, of course.

Time for some more poetry - Reid Mitchell's as below...

Anthem for Doomed Shrimp


The San Miguel girl,

even at midnight fresh-faced,

remembers me.  Or seems to,

fetching me small peanuts

and cool beers


As they clamor for soy sauce

and broken eggs, the doomed shrimp

remember me as well.

They call out “Mister Shrimp!”

inviting me to join them  promptly


or sooner

Much sooner.

Reid Mitchell


Wet Market, Cloudy Night

Young, teakwood woman

wearing stained white tennis shoes

drags a green plastic trash can

She stops and looks skyward

Her mind has left here

It's somewhere else, a place

with brighter colors and stronger breezes,

scented with black peppercorns.

Or is it a landscape

as barren as the moon

if ice sheets the moon

as quicksilver sheets a mirror?

Can it be that she looks

through mist and sees


her own reflection?

Reid Mitchell

Last and certainly by no means leas,t is a further expatriate poet friend of mine, whom I last encountered in Hong Kong airport a few years ago - the German-born expert on Scots and Gaelic poetry and prose and a long-term dewller in the United Arab Emirates, Manfred Malzahn.

Manfred M Manfred writes, 'My poetic output these days is a trickle rather than a stream. One reason for this may be the feeling that I can get only limited mileage out of expat poetry. I can't help thinking that however perceptive an outsider may be, s/he will primarily see the outward forms or expressions of life. There's surely some potential for poetry there, but the poetry I like the most cuts through to something deeper, and sometimes I reckon I manage to produce poetry that actually does so. Here's what I might call a signature poem of mine, which is at left, below.

I wrote that in Scotland a long time ago...My expat life began in the summer of 1988, when I left Scotland, my second home country after my native Germany. I composed the following piece during the boat trip from Genoa to Tunis [which is at right below]: I was on my way to getting lost then, and I have since written quite a bit about the experience and the condition, but I have also kept revisiting Germany and Scotland in my writing, not least in the form of song lyrics. At the last public reading I gave, which was in the German town of Göttingen in July 2015 during an academic conference, I mixed some of my own songs with my poems. I have done so on other occasions, too, e.g. at the Goethe Institute in Abu Dhabi, where I did bilingual reading with my Arabic translator Ahmed Assirri from Yemen...[while my ]Most recent appearance in print was in the Second Genesis anthology, published in India in 2014.'



When he was a fly

A drop of rain

Could really

Spoil his day


Now he is an elephant

In a thunderstorm


Lost sensibility




Some ships lie in two ports

Some sailors with two wives

Some hands weigh up the difference

Between two hard boiled eggs

And two connubial lives


Some go, but never leave

Each journey a return

No stranger place to be

Ad so they dream each night

Of being lost at sea

In answer to my further two enquiries, Manfred had simple replies, 'Poetry in the UAE is alive and well, and extremely multi-faceted. Classical and modern Arabic, nabati verse in Gulf or Bedouin Arabic, and poetry in a kaleidoscope of other languages including English' - as here...'My only connection with NZ poetry is indeed Vaughan Rapatahana. Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that much NZ poetry still needs to be sampled by quite a number of people all over the world. Not entirely unlike NZ wine, perhaps.

What clearer way to end than with Manfred Malzahn's final words as above. There is copious room for a far more pronounced two way street relationship between the poetry and poetics of Aotearoa-New Zealand and other, often non-Anglo-American countries and their climes. Places where 'traditional' formats still are of great import, unbesmirched by postmodern fiddling and tepid word play. And whose people - as stressed several times already in this commentary series - are arriving here in Godzone aka NZ in increasingly larger numbers. All the six featured poets here are, if not Indigenous, are indigenous residents; all fully appreciate the responsibility to afford first-language poetry and culture pre-eminence, even when they write in English. They are truly multicultural. Aotearoa-New Zealand poets could learn a good deal from them.