Welcome to the fifth in a series of pieces we’re running as part of ReadNZ, which is a campaign to get more of us reading books written by New Zealanders.
Think of any type of storytelling, and there’ll be a New Zealander who is good at it.
We produce a huge range of fantastic books here in Aotearoa, and we want to help readers find something new to them!
Helen Lehndorf is a writer and teacher based in Palmerston North. Her book The Comforter was selected for the Listener’s ‘Best 100 Books of 2012′ list while her poem Wabi-sabi was selected for Best New Zealand Poems in 2011.
Helen's second book, about the practice of journaling, Write to the Centre, was published by Haunui Press in 2016. Helen's work has been published in Sport, Landfall, JAAM, and many other publications.
We talked to Helen about poetry that has been meaningful to her over the years, and why poetry isn't just for weddings and funerals.
Is there anything about NZ poetry that sets it apart do you think?
I think our poetry is often very funny. I love the self-awareness and self-deprecating humour in a lot of New Zealand poetry.
Regarding poets who write about the natural world from their lived experience, I think New Zealand poets have a way of enmeshing 'nature' and self in their work which speaks to how interconnected many of us (New Zealanders) are with our environment.
I could be biased, but I also think New Zealand poetry is of a consistently high standard.
What does ‘Read NZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read poetry from this place?
To read work by other New Zealanders is to have the affirming feeling of a deep knowing, grounded in place. To read New Zealand work connects me to where I live and shows me fresh perspectives on a place I think I know so well.
It is important to read New Zealand poetry because it will (hopefully) show you things about the country you live in with fresh eyes. It has the potential celebrate this place, poke fun at it, or at least extend your understanding of it.
Which NZ books/poets have been special to you in your life?
This is hard to answer because I have so many friends who are writers, so I want to choose all of their books because when a friend publishes a book it becomes special to me because of that personal connection!
If I think of this question more in terms of influential books, then Patricia Grace's short story collection The Dream Sleepers is an important book to me. It was a text I studied at high school and it was a revelation to me that these 'ordinary' New Zealand stories could be so beautifully written and that there was an audience for it, too. I was already dreaming of being a writer then, so that book gave me so much courage and inspiration. Between Earth and Sky remains one of my favourite New Zealand short stories to this day.
Sarah Laing's collection of short stories Coming Up Roses is a special book to me because although the stories are fiction, many of them are loosely drawn from Sarah's world in her twenties and thirties, which as her friend I was part of, too. The writing is so spare and skilful and re-reading the stories is a dip into nostalgia for me.
Poets that are special to me: Sam Hunt because he came and read poems in my small home town when I was a teenager - the only writer who visited during my high school years; I will be forever grateful. Dinah Hawken for the way she reveres and writes the natural world of New Zealand. David Merritt for being utterly himself at all times and choosing a different, and very inspiring, way to be a poet in New Zealand.
If you were going to recommend NZ poetry to other New Zealanders, which books would you choose?
There are so many! It pains me to choose just a few...but here goes:
One of my favourite poetry books is Fiona Farrell's The Pop Up Book of Invasions. In this book, she explores identity in a very original, relatable way. I've re-read it many times.
A book I feel didn't get enough attention when it was released is Belinda Diepenheim's Waybread and Flax. These poems, written from and in the world of plants, is original, tough, funny and clever. The writer explores plants from her ancestry, plants introduced to New Zealand and plants native to New Zealand and their usages in rongoa. There are also beautiful coloured plates of botanical illustrations throughout the book. It would be a great read for any gardener or plant lover, or lovers of unexpected, good poetry!
I recommend all of Tusiata Avia's books (couldn't choose between them!). Her writing is fierce, true and gives me courage.
Fresh off the printing press is my friend Helen Heath's book Are Friends Electric?. She takes apart curious elements of contemporary life (biomimicry, 'sexbots', post-mortem digital archiving) and puts it back together again with an intelligent, curious eye.
I love Hannah Mettner's book Fully Clothed and So Forgetful - again, humour, and frank emotional messes but in a compelling rather than blood-letting kind of way. (I reviewed this book for Landfall Online if you wish to know more of why I liked it.)
In a recent review, Maria McMillan's book The Ski Flier was described as 'operatic' which is a great word for it. It's grand, sweeping and daring - a nourishing read for days when you feel like the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket and there's nothing you can do.
Finally, a last favourite is Charlotte Simmonds' The World's Fastest Flower. This is a good book for those folks who thing poetry is 'boring'.
This book has such raw energy and spirit, it really is infectious, the poetry version of listening to a great punk record up loud. I could keep going all day - I hope I've conveyed that there is SO MUCH wonderful New Zealand poetry out there.
If you're still thinking J K Baxter and Sam Hunt when you hear the words 'New Zealand poetry' (nothing wrong with either of them, by the way, that's just me trying to think who our most commonly-known poets might be) you're missing out. Poetry isn't just for weddings and funerals!
Non-poetry readers sometimes say to me they find it hard to read a whole book of poetry. With poetry, it's okay to dip in and out, it's okay to read a book of poetry over a year or more.
Poetry books aren't often written to be read through in one or two sittings. It is a different reading experience, but an utterly worthwhile one.