Poet William Sewell was born in Athens and spent much of his early life in Southern Europe. He finished his education in New Zealand, studying German at the University of Auckland and later obtaining a law degree. Sewell was Burns Fellow at Otago University in 1981 and 1982, and president of the New Zealand Poetry Society in the early 1990s. His work, though often local in its setting, demonstrates Sewell’s engagement with modern European, particularly German, poetry. Sewell was posthumously awarded the inaugural Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry in 2003.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Sewell, William or Bill (1951–2003), poet, was born in Athens and spent much of his early life in various parts of Southern Europe (Barcelona, Ankara and Beirut). After primary and secondary schooling in England, he finished his education in New Zealand where he studied German at the University of Auckland and completed a doctorate on the poetry and politics of Hans Magnus Enzensberger. He lectured in German at Otago University, worked as an editor for John McIndoe and the University of Otago Press and, after obtaining a law degree from Victoria University of Wellington, was a legal researcher for the Law Commission and is a freelance writer and editor.
Sewell was Burns Fellow at Otago University in 1981 and 1982, and president of the New Zealand Poetry Society in the early 1990s. He has published three collections of poems, Solo Flight (1982), Wheels Within Wheels (1983), and Making the Far Land Glow (1986), and also A Guide to the Rimutaka Forest Park (1989).
Sewell’s work, though usually local in its setting, demonstrates in its practice his engagement with modern European, particularly German, poetry. His articulate, carefully orchestrated poems are notable for their restrained lyricism, political focus and an undertow of laconic humour. ‘Solo Flight’, a series of meditations about the South Canterbury aviator Richard Pearse, ‘Otago Studies’ (‘evening crinkles the land / into folds of the brain’) and the uncollected ‘El Sur’ (‘Silence has a word / for most things; / if not, a grunted / syllable must do’) attest to his liking for the poetic sequence and are among his most impressive achievements in this line.
He is a frequent reviewer, especially for New Zealand Books, becoming co-editor in 1997. He edited Sons of the Father: New Zealand Men Write About Their Fathers (1997) and co-edited Under Review: A Selection from ‘New Zealand Books’ 1991–1996 (1997).
Since the Companion entry was written, the 'El Sur' sequence has been published by Pemmican Press in a collection of the same title (1998).
Erebus: A Poem (1999) is Sewell's long poem in thirty-four sections, in which he revisits New Zealand's worst aviation disaster, the crash of Air New Zealand flight 901 into Mount Erebus in Antarctica. The accident had legal, political and emotional consequences that have lasted to this day. In this poem, Sewell moves out from the event itself to ponder on private and public grief, time, chance, politics and the 1970s.
Bill Sewell is co-editor of Essential New Zealand Poems (2001). He was working on the anthology with Lauris Edmond at the time of her death in January 2000.
Essential New Zealand Poems features more than 200 shorter poems selected for their immediate impact on the reader, and is aimed at the widest possible audience. It was also shortlisted in the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
The Ballad of Fifty-one (2003) is collection of poems centred on the 1951 Waterfront Lockout. His poetry provides a vivid context and wry commentary, as well as something of the emotions, the preoccupations, and the flavour of the period.
Bill Sewell died in Wellington shortly after the publication of The Ballad of Fifty-one.
He was posthumously awarded the inaugural Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry in 2003.
The Ballad of Fifty-one (2003) was a finalist in the poetry category of the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2004.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- There is a bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File.
Updated January 2017.