Sullivan, Robert

Sullivan, Robert



In Brief

Robert Sullivan, Ngāpuhi, is a poet and academic. He is a significant internationally published Māori poet with seven collections of poetry released. His poetry is also widely anthologised. Sullivan's writing explores dimensions of contemporary urban experience, including local racial and social issues. His writing has a postmodern feel, where history and mythology, individual and collective experience, become areas of refined focus. Sullivan’s work has won or been nominated for many awards and he is an editor of the online journal, Trout.


Sullivan, Robert (1967– ), Nga Puhi, emerged as a distinctive Maori poet with his first collection, Jazz Waiata (1990). Piki Ake appeared in 1993. Sullivan then had a substantial entry in the first volume of Te Ao Marama, edited by Witi Ihimaera (1994).

He is a graduate of Auckland University, where he took the course in modern American poetry taught by Wystan Curnow, Michele Leggott and Roger Horrocks. The largest single influence on Sullivan is the New York poet Frank O'Hara. Like O'Hara, he alternates relaxed, conversational narratives of everyday events, including frequent allusions to the literary scene and to popular culture, with, in other poems, disjointed, free-associative verse, typographical experimentation, and wild bursts of verbal exuberance. His quieter poems about his whanau in Northland, such as the Tai Tokerau sequence, also display a debt to Baxter's Pig Island Letters and Jerusalem poetry.

Sullivan is a qualified librarian, currently working at Auckland University Library. This bibliophile side of his life is explored in the sequence 'The George Grey Room', where he describes the daily routine of a rare books librarian, and praises the former New Zealand governor as a collector and benefactor, gently rebuking Maori activists who decapitated the statue of Grey in Albert Park. Sullivans predominantly urban, postmodern poetic is enriched by his acute awareness, as a Maori, of New Zealand racial and social issues. In works such as 'Not the 1990 Poem', 'Message from Mangere' and 'The Prophet Rua', he furnishes Maori identity with a new voice, sophisticated yet passionate.

Book Council note: Robert Sullivan is no longer a librarian. He has worked as an academic at the University of Hawai'i, and at Manukau Institute of Technology.


In 1998, Sullivan was awarded the Auckland University Literary Fellowship.

Robert Sullivan's collection of poetry, Star Waka (1999), was short-listed for the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Weaving Earth & Sky: Myths and Legends of Aotearoa by Robert Sullivan, with illustrations by Gavin Bishop, retells classic Maori myths and legends which range from creation to Maui to Kupes arrival in Aotearoa. Weaving Earth & Sky won Best in Non-Fiction and Book of the Year at the 2003 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Weaving Earth & Sky: Myths and Legends of Aotearoa was also shortlisted for the 2003 LIANZA Elsie Locke Medal, and was listed as a 2003 Storylines Notable Non-Fiction Book.

Captain Cook in the Underworld (2002) is a book-length poem. Originally commissioned as the libretto for a new work with composer John Psathas, this is a highly stylised, 'operatic' account of the voyages of Captain Cook. Captain Cook in the Underworld (2002) was longlisted in the Poetry Category for the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Sullivan has been appointed as an Assistant Professor teaching Creative Writing at the University of Hawai'i in Honolulu. He took up the position in August 2003.

Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English (Auckland University Press, 2003) edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan is the first anthology of contemporary indigenous Polynesian poetry in English, edited by Polynesians. It won the Montana Award for Reference and Anthology at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Sullivan's poetry collection Voice Carried My Family was published by Auckland University Press in 2005. In the same year, Robert Sullivan’s collection Pike Ake, long out of print, was published online in its entirety:

Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English – Whetu Moana II was edited by Robert Sullivan, Albert Wendt, and Reina Whaitiri (Auckland University Press, 2010). The anthology was a finalist in the Poetry category of the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Cassino City of Martyrs (Huia 2010) is an extended poem exploring the imagined physical and psychic journeys of Sullivan's grandfather during the Italian campaign of World War II.

Shout Ha! to the Sky (Salt UK 2010), his seventh collection of poetry, contains several sequences celebrating and questioning cherished New Zealand identities.

Sullivan's poem 'Kawe Reo / Voices Carry' was permanently installed on the front steps of Auckland City Central Library, along with a text sculpture he composed for the Library's site on Lorne St.

Robert Sullivan was for a time Director of Creative Writing at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, and Associate Professor of English. He is now head of the Creative Writing School at Manukau Institute of Technology.

He wrote a poem for a musical composition by Stephen Matthews. 'Witnessing Parihaka' was performed by the Auckland Philarmonia at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. The poem was read by Stuart Devenie and Te Kohe Tuhaka.

His popular poetry collection, Star Waka, will be reprinted for the third time by Auckland University Press.

Sullivan has performed his work at festivals and universities in Germany, Spain, India, England, United States, Turkey, Hong Kong, and Canada.


Updated January 2017.