In the innovative and engaging Skinny Dip, proudly published by Annual Ink/Massey University Press, Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris, the makers of the best-selling Annuals, curate over 30 poems for young readers from some of New Zealand’s best known and most loved poets: Renee Liang, Victor Rodger, Amber Esau, Anahera Gildea, essa may ranapiri, Bill Manhire, Amy McDaid, Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall, Vanessa Mei Crofskey, Ben Brown, Ashleigh Young, James Brown, Dinah Hawken, Rata Gordon, Oscar Upperton, Nick Ascroft, Tim Upperton, Lynley Edmeades, Freya Daly Sadgrove, Sam Duckor-Jones, Nina Mingya Powles and Jane Arthur.
Susan Paris has 18 years experience in publishing. She has edited the School Journal for 12 years, producing more than 50 journals. She has written Ready to Read titles and more than 40 chapter books for the educational market, both New Zealand and overseas. She tells us more about the project.
Q1: What’s the thinking behind this great new project?
We noticed there was very little poetry being published for younger readers. Original, contemporary poems for kids, written by our own, just didn’t seem to be a thing — other than in the School Journal. Given New Zealand’s small but energetic poetry scene, this felt like a loss. No one was considering the next generation of poetry readers (and arguably, the next generation of poets) and how they were being fed. So there was that, but also the form has so much to offer younger readers. It made sense to make the most of such fertile territory. Once we started commissioning, the book came together with such ease. We took great heart from this for practical reasons, but it also felt like confirmation that we were on to something. The structure had a lot to do with our early confidence. The work was commissioned to loosely reflect the school year, and it’s also arranged by term — an approach that helped us trust Skinny Dip would be topical and relevant.
Q2: Its intended audience is kids, but of course adult readers of these poems will learn a lot too, won’t they?
For sure! These poems illustrate many aspects of school life that haven’t changed: the rainy day lunchtimes, kapa haka practice, PE, Dad’s ‘help’ with homework, friendship. There’s a great range of voices and moods across the book, too. Most striking is the poets’ flair and ingenuity with poetic form. There are excellent examples of free verse, rhyming verse, and other familiar forms, such as haiku and odes, but also lesser-known, tricksy forms: pantoum, sestina, villanelle, rondel. Skinny Dip will entertain and surprise all ages.
Q3: Sales of poetry books and the number being published show us that New Zealanders love poetry to bits, but do you suspect that they’re often not aware of what exactly they are reading and how the poem has been built?
Each Skinny Dip poet was given a subject and poetic form, which appears at the bottom of the page. We were looking for a point of difference, that extra challenge for the upper-middle reader (students in years 7 to 10) and a way to make the book useful in the classroom. We also wanted to draw attention to the fact that while all good writing presents as effortless, everyone knows this isn’t true, and this feels especially the case when it comes to poetry. It’s so slight on the page, there’s no room for error. We wanted to give readers the opportunity to consider what can’t be seen, the great care that goes into being light-footed, and one way of doing this was to draw attention both to a poem’s architecture and to the many different building plans available. Pantoums, free verse, cinquains, blank verse, rondels … how do each of these forms dictate certain decisions? What are the rules, and how might they be broken? The back of the book contains lightly instructional notes about the poetic forms that appear in Skinny Dip. We hope they’ll be enjoyed for their own sake in addition to being a good starting point for teachers.
Q4: Once you understand the conventions of each of the forms, what extra layer of understanding and appreciation does that bring?
Good poets turn the requirements of form to their advantage. They wield rules about things like recurring lines or the number of syllables to enhance and unify every aspect of their poem — its subject, rhythm, poetic devices — so it has maximum effect on the reader. Problem solving with benefits! It’s exhilarating for a reader to recognise how deftly a poet has navigated and exploited a form’s requirements.
Q5: You’ve assembled a stellar line-up of poets, from famous old hands to rising starts. What were you keen to do with your selection of voices?
Poetry is about noticing, and we wanted to make sure this was done by as many sets of eyes as possible. Given that so little New Zealand poetry is being done for young readers right now, there’s really no other way to make a book like this. And while having multiple perspectives is democratic, it also guarantees energy. We did originally contemplate publishing a different kind of collection, perhaps the work of one poet, but this came to feel too limiting, especially once we hit on the idea of a book organised around the school year. This decision pretty much demanded that we used a variety of poets. The many different voices also bring a pleasing chaos, which messes with Skinny Dip’s sensible structure. The decision to feature different poetic forms was another part of our desire to be expansive.
We wanted writers who’d resonant with younger readers. A youthful eye was essential, something that isn’t necessarily related to age. That said, some of our poets are still fairly young themselves, which means a certain kind of chemistry. As with the Annuals, we’ve found new voices mixed with old to be the perfect combination. It gives us the confidence to be bold and take risks, but it also guarantees multiple perspectives and experiences.
Q6: Was everyone keen to climb on board?
We had a wonderfully enthusiastic response from the writers we contacted. We approached poets we knew — or hoped — would enjoy the challenge of a commission, who could run with a suggested subject and make it their own. They all came through magnificently.
Q7: Did they relish the challenge of working within a specific form and on a given topic?
Yes, pretty much all of them. As Annual Ink, we’ve commissioned a lot of work over the last five years, and we’ve noticed how consistently well writers respond to a brief, as long as it has the right mix of direction and space. Some of our poets have no experience writing for children, and it’s easy to over-think the audience and seize up. Typically, our briefs for Skinny Dip went something along the lines of ‘packing for camp + light verse’ or ‘the school caretaker + a villanelle’. This may seem directive, but actually, as our writers attest, it’s still a reasonably open playing field. The notes on poetic form at the back contain a few quotes about their experience of tackling a pantoum, sestina, and so on.
Q8: It was a learning curve for many of them too, one imagines?
A writer’s work generally rises from their own imaginative cauldron, but with a commission, you’re taking on some parameters decided by an editor. This offers challenges, but we found most writers — and maybe poets, particularly — are up for it. They enjoy being busted out of their usual writing trench, flexing their technical muscles, going places they might not have otherwise. They like being surprised.
Q9: How do you hope teachers will use this book?
With much enthusiasm to ensure the next generation reads poetry! There’s always interest in New Zealand content, and we hope this will be utilised, too. We want Skinny Dip to be a regular thing, like the Annuals — we think there’s a real need for this kind of book.