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Bornholdt, Jenny
Writer's File

Jenny Bornholdt

Wellington - Te Whanganui-a-Tara
Bornholdt, Jenny
In brief
Jenny Bornholdt is a poet and anthologist. Her poems have been continuously recognised in publications such as Best New Zealand Poems (International Institute of Modern Letters), and she has been selected for numerous awards and fellowships, including the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, the New Zealand Poets Laureate Award, and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, now known as the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
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    Victoria University Press
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Bornholdt, Jenny (1960 –), is a poet and anthologist. She began writing seriously in 1984, and has since published This Big Face (1988), Moving House (1989), Waiting Shelter (1991), How We Met (1995) and Miss New Zealand: Selected Poems (1997). Almost without exception, critics have praised her poetry’s freshness and the concealed depths in its lucid explorations of the simple and the familiar: ‘many poems … ring like the reassuring chime of crystal glass or with the resonance of a perfectly fired bell.… They reveal the hidden.’ (Bill Direen, NZ Listener, 17 June 1995).

Characteristic of her idiosyncratic take on the world is the way language and relationships serve similar functions in her verse. She clearly delights in language, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of how it can fashion and refashion existence, and an acute awareness of the mutability of meaning: ‘O deceptive mouth / covering up / for the heart like that’ (‘My mouth was singing’). She enjoys wordplay: be it a deliberate, self-conscious reiteration of themes and vocabulary to bind sequences of shorter, lyric poems; or the employment of ‘found language’ to surprising effect, as happened with the sign on a shelter in the Wellington Botanic Gardens that supplies the title for Waiting Shelter. Manhire’s teaching techniques are evident behind the eighteen pieces of the first section of How We Met, for which Bornholdt drew inspiration from a recording of north-eastern Estonian song cycles—a variation on a creative writing course’s stock exercise involving the use of something (anything) as a catalyst to set in motion the creative process. Like words, relationships regularly elude definition in Bornholdt’s poetry. She makes full use of autobiographical detail, but usually as a starting point for an imaginative act that, while inventive and unexpected, invariably finds its way back to the individual or the personal relationship—‘The long arms of the family rest / along the shoulders of the world’ (‘We Will We Do’).

Bornholdt is married to poet Gregory O’Brien, and critics have noted the sense of ongoing conversation occurring between their respective collections; as well, he makes occasional cameo appearances in her poems. With O’Brien she co-edited My Heart Goes Swimming: New Zealand Love Poems (1996), and with O’Brien and Mark Williams: An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (1997), which won the 1997 Montana Book Award for Poetry.


Jenny Bornholdt is a poet and anthologist. Born in Lower Hutt, she studied a BA in English Literature and a Diploma in Journalism, and attended Bill Manhire’s original composition course at Victoria University of Wellington in 1984.

These Days
(Victoria University Press) was published in 2000, and was described in New Zealand Books – Pukapuka Aotearoa, ‘Jenny Bornholdt’s poems appear simple for she is truly a poet at ease in her element. Hers is the art that conceals art: rarely a word out of place, little exposition, less decoration, yet complex’.

Bornholdt’s poem, "Being a Poet" was selected for the International Institute of Modern Letters' online collection Best New Zealand Poems 2001, while "Blue Shirts, Descending" was chosen for the Best New Zealand Poems 2002.

Bornholdt was selected for the 2002 Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, now known as the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. The poems in her collection, Summer (Victoria University Press, 2003) record the experiences of the poet and her family through the summer of her fellowship. Summer was reviewed for New Zealand Herald, ‘the poems provide a marvellous, uplifting snapshot of time in a foreign country, where everything is new... this seventh collection celebrates life with a warm intensity born of an awareness and acceptance of its far too seasonal nature.’

Bornholdt’s poetry has continued to be selected for the Best New Zealand Poems collection; "Ode to the Little Hotel" was selected for the Best New Zealand Poems 2003 and "Photograph" was selected for Best New Zealand Poems 2005. "Medical" was chosen for Best New Zealand Poems 2006.

In 2005 she became the fifth Te Mata Estate Poets Laureate, now known as the New Zealand Poets Laureate, during which time she wrote Mrs Winter's Jump (Random House, 2007). The collection's namesake poem was selected for Best New Zealand Poems 2007.

The Colour of Distance: New Zealand Writers in France, French Writers in New Zealand
was published in 2005 by Victoria University Press and co-edited by Gregory O'Brien. The anthology includes memoirs, stories and poems written in France by some of New Zealand’s most celebrated writers, including Janet Frame, Allen Curnow, James K. Baxter and Michael King. The collection also records French writers’ imaginative engagement with New Zealand.

A review in the NZ Listenerdescribed the collection as a ‘glossy and good-looking anthology assembling photographs, poems, prose and illustrations celebrating the Franco-New Zealand literary relationship of the past 65 years. Many contributions are by New Zealand writers on the Katherine Mansfield fellowship in Menton. Others include wanderer James K Baxter, soldier M K Joseph and French writers recently resident in Wellington's Randell Cottage. Bornholt and O'Brien let their devotion to the subject shine, delivering the serious and the comic with a stylistic reverence. With a spectacular late interview with Janet Frame, a French rendition of the Dylan Horrocks comic Hicksville, and odes to the great Riviera, it's for anyone who dreams of Europe.’

Bornholdt featured in Shards of Silver (Steele Roberts), a book investigating the interplay between photography and poetry in 2006.

The Rocky Shore (2008), published by Victoria University Press, contains six long poems written over the course of six years. The Rocky Shore won the 2009 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, now part of the Ockham new Zealand Book Awards, and was described in Sunday Star Times, ‘[y]ou gradually become aware of the craft that has gone into individual poems and how skilful the architecture of the book as a whole is, in its pacing and poignant pauses and repeated motifs. Bornholdt is, in short, a first-rate writer.’

In 2010, Jenny Bornholdt was the Creative New Zealand Victoria University Writer in Residence. During that year she completed a book of poems, The Hill of Wool, which was published in 2011 by Victoria University Press.

Bornholdt was interviewed by Harry Ricketts in the anthology, Words Chosen Carefully, edited by Siobhan Harvey (Cape Catley Ltd, 2010).

At the end of 2013 Jenny was acknowledged in the New Year's Honour's list as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Selected Poems (Victoria University Press, 2016) provides a full representation of Jenny Bornholdt’s work through nine collections and nearly thirty years. Favourite short poems like “How to get ahead of yourself while the light still shines” and “Being a poet” are included, alongside vernacular anecdotes like “Then Murray came”, and long poems from The Rocky Shore. Paula Green for Stuff said of Selected Poems, ‘Bornholdt's poetry is marked by understatement, quietness, and a mesmerising contemplation of the world, both interior and exterior. More than any other local poet I can name, these poems emerge from a wise and warm appreciation of the world, as if she holds her hand up to pause daily activity and allow us to see with restored attention.’

In 2019, Te Herenga Waka University Press published Lost and Somewhere Else, in which she finds many places to stand: at home, in memories of places and people, and in the Ernst Plischke-designed Henderson House in Alexandra, Central Otago, in which she lived while writing these poems.