Kia ora tātou katoa. It’s a very real pleasure to be asked to edit Best New Zealand Poems 2006 especially since we are now located in Honolulu. Our thanks go to Professor Bill Manhire and the team at the Institute of Modern Letters for the kind invitation and the work each year they put into improving access to good New Zealand poetry.
Hawai‘i has a similar story to New Zealand’s, in that it’s culturally and politically relocating itself within the Pacific-Asia region. This dynamic state, with its diverse Hawai‘i community of Kanaka Maoli and those originally from Southeast and East Asia, and the American Pacific territories, remains firmly attached to the contiguous USA just as New Zealand, with its new and established communities originally from South and East Asia and the South Pacific, retains strong ties to Britain and Australia. The poetry in Hawai‘i reflects that ever-moving cultural dynamic while New Zealand’s published poetry which once mainly represented white writers, has gradually encouraged writers of Maori and, more recently, Pacific Islands’ descent. Asian New Zealand poets are emerging now too and we celebrate them.
In selecting this year’s Best New Zealand Poems we did our best to scout the diverse ethnic and intellectual communities that New Zealand poets belong to. We searched for writing by Pakeha women and men, as well as Maori, Pacific Islander and Asian New Zealanders. With the help of the Institute of Modern Letters team who sent us care packages from home, we immersed ourselves as well in writing that was experimental and lyrical. Our approach was broad, akin to Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris’ two volume anthology Poems for the New Millennium which has several ‘galleries’ and poetic movements from the last century of poetry, where Rilke, Yeats, Futurists and Dadaists jostle. We noticed that in 2006 there were far fewer books or poems in periodicals by Maori and Asian writers than others, per capita. Those writers — if indeed they exist — either were not sending their work out for publication or it was being rejected. So much in writing, from our experience, depends upon the encouragement of publishers, editors and educators. Talking with New York-based poet Julie Sheehan, we agreed that there was no money in poetry! Although we wouldn’t want to reduce this absence of necessary voices to economics.
The poems we did select were those we enjoyed reading the most. It represents those voices we are already familiar with and have grown to adore, and also the surprising new voices we have found and wish to share with a wider readership.
It was a blast to be reminded just how widespread poetry is in New Zealand. While readerships may be small, representation exists across a fairly broad spectrum. As well as reading books by individual poets, we read poems from anthologies, magazines, arts journals, e-journals and other websites. That writing is being seen and heard in a diverse range of media is encouraging. This was brought home in a concrete way when our daughter lined her rabbit cage with a selection of poems clipped from magazines (which were, we hasten to add, retrieved before the bunny moved in). In the course of things, a pile of poetry had closely resembled a pile of the daily news.
Our selection of poems has, of course, its own set of idiosyncrasies. Choosing became very difficult as things got down to the wire and we reluctantly left out many poets whose work we greatly admire and enjoy, often just as much as what appears here. But one of the delights about the editorial process was that we noticed, as we read and reread, that some poems taught us how to read them. We grew to love some poems, or they grew on us. This backed up our original aim of covering a wide spectrum; that familiarity can swing a reader. Which is partly why this site is so important. We are pleased to be part of the process which sends these twenty-five poems out into the world afresh, to sway and astonish a different and bigger audience.
By familiarity we do not mean knowing. We noticed we tended toward poems that left us with a sense of wonder, so that they were at no point closed for us. Further, we admired texts that juxtaposed several ingredients in the quest for wonder: mystery, metaphor, and an identifiable, almost sing-able voice. We were impressed by tropes that burrowed a long way under the topsoil of language. Several of the poems here have embraced narrative or anti-narrative in a fluid and outspoken manner. Some of the writers are represented by poems that are not, to date, emblematic of their work in general, but who seemed to be striking out on a new path that was exciting to us.
These ‘best’ New Zealand poems happen to represent the country’s texts composed and published in English. There is a very rich and healthy oral literature in Maori. For instance, the third volume of Nga Moteatea edited by Sir Apirana Ngata, and Pei Te Hurinui Jones, was reprinted in 2006 as part of an ongoing publishing project edited by Professor Margaret Mutu, Dr Jane McRae and Jenifer Curnow. As another instance, the biennial national kapa haka festival, Te Matatini, has just concluded. It was shown on Maori television before a live audience of thousands. The best haka group, of Whale Rider fame, was Whangara-Mai-Tawhiti. The contest is at its simplest a testament to the choreographed bodies of men and women moving to the charged language of a composer, and also to the enduring art whose functions happen to cross over into many cultures as poetry. It’s also worth noting that similar festivals occur in many different language communities within Aotearoa.
We extend our thanks to the poets whose work has kindled fires, moved us through stories, helped us, in the words of Wendell Berry, ‘bow to mystery’.
Ma te huruhuru ka rere te manu.
It is by its feathers that a bird flies [where every feather is a poem].
Nāku iti noa, nā te aroha,
Anne Kennedy and Robert Sullivan