Paterson, Alistair

Paterson, Alistair



In Brief

Alistair Paterson is a poet, editor, anthologist, fiction writer and critic, associated with the rise in awareness in this country of American poetics, including aspects of postmodernism and the concept of the ‘open form’. In the 1970s he initiated and organised the tours of poets such as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Galway Kinnell. In later years he has focused more on fiction, and in 1993 he won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award. He has been an editor of Poetry New Zealand, and in 2007 he was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.


Paterson, Alistair or A.I.H. (1929– ), is a poet, editor, anthologist, fiction writer and critic most associated with the development in the 1970s–1980s of New Zealand awareness of recent American poetics, especially aspects of postmodernism and the concept of ‘open form’.

He has also combined a productive literary career with unusual skills as an administrator and entrepreneur, a legacy perhaps of his experience in the Royal New Zealand Navy (1954–74, retiring as lieutenant commander) and in public service education (dean of general studies, New Zealand Police 1974–78, continuing education officer, Department of Education 1979–89).

Thus he initiated and organised the important tour of Robert Creeley in 1976, was behind the later visits of Robert Duncan and Galway Kinnell, served on the national executive of PEN 1982–89, has frequently acted as literary judge and on various selection committees (Burns Fellowship et al.) and has been a notably reliable and successful editor, of Mate and Climate 1974–78, and Poetry New Zealand since 1994.

Above all Paterson made himself known as an advocate of contemporary American ideas in poetry and as a tireless critic of what he has always loosely called ‘Georgianism’. Influenced mainly by William Carlos Williams, he argued that poetry is ‘not a quantity (in either the metrical or the intellectual sense) but a quality of mind’, following the ‘Black Mountain poets’ (Creeley, Duncan, Charles Olson, et al.) in seeking ‘open’ or ‘organic’ form, exclusion of any notion of poetic personality or self and thus the discarding of conventions of lineation, margin and metre in favour of spontaneity and a sense of the exploratory and provisional. From this he adapted his own practice of ‘double margin field form’.

Paterson’s volumes of poetry are: Caves in the Hill (1965), Birds Flying (1973), Cities and Strangers (1976), The Toledo Room (1978), Qu’appelle (1982), Odysseus Rex (1985) and Incantations for Warriors (1986). The Toledo Room grew from his interest in the possibility of the longer poem, then well out of fashion, and was well received, being performed as a dramatic piece on radio and at Downstage Theatre, both in 1978. Paterson’s poetry has been frequently anthologised both in New Zealand and America and he was co-winner of the J.C. Reid Award for longer poems in 1982 for Qu’appelle.

His missionary zeal for the new poetics also made him an active promoter and mentor of younger practitioners of them. As editor he encouraged writers such as Jennifer Compton, Mike Johnson and David Mitchell, and he has written enthusiastically on such poets as Riemke Ensing (Metro, July 1986) and Rob Jackaman (Journal of New Zealand Literature 10, 1992).

Yet his success as an editor reflects a catholicity of taste rather than a single-minded orthodoxy. Even his anthology 15 Contemporary New Zealand Poets (NZ 1980, USA 1982), by including Allen Curnow and Kendrick Smithyman, showed a responsiveness to varieties of the contemporary outside Black Mountain or ‘open form’ doctrines.

His long and contentious introduction to 15 Contemporary New Zealand Poets, expanded and published separately as The New Poetry, Considerations Towards Open Form (1981), is more prescriptive, doctrinaire and arguably elitist than his actual editorial practice.

He is currently concentrating on fiction, in which his first recognition came when he won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Memorial Short Story Award in 1993. His novel How to Be a Millionaire by Next Wednesday (1994) led to a 1996 Creative New Zealand award for work on a further novel. He has also taught novel writing for University of Auckland Continuing Education.

Born in Nelson, Paterson has lived in Christchurch, Wellington and since 1979 Auckland, as well as on-board postings with the Navy. He graduated BA at Victoria University and also gained teaching qualifications. Though he has sometimes described himself as insufficiently recognised by the literary establishment, he has in fact almost always held positions of influence which he has used with some generosity, especially now as editor of Poetry New Zealand.


In 2007 Alistair Paterson was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.

He edited Poetry NZ 47, published in 2013, and Poetry NZ 48, published in 2014.


Updated January 2017.