Applications for the next poet laureate of New Zealand open today at 10am. Newsroom literary editor Steve Braunias encourages readers to vote now – and nominates five contenders, including a well-known former politician.
New Zealand’s poet laureate award is one of the best wickets in state-funded culture. The winner gets $80,000, a crate of booze from Te Mata, and a tokotoko – and the public sort of gets to choose who wins it.
Nominations from the public open today at 10am. The forms are available at the National Library website. Votes will be considered by something called the New Zealand Poet Laureate Advisory Group, with submissions from libraries, universities and creative writing programmes, which is to say literature’s civil service.
Make your voice heard! Drown out the recommendations from the establishment, the literary clique, the gatekeepers! Write in with your nominations now, soon, before the deadline on July 24.
The next laureate is named in August. It’s a two-year term, funded and supported by the National Library. Certainly two or three leading bores in New Zealand letters have won the award over the years but so have quality practitioners such as Bill Manhire (the inaugural laureate, in 1996), Hone Tuwhare, Elizabeth Smither, CK Stead, and the retiring laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh.
Who’s next on the list? Dear old Reading Room wishes to take this opportunity to put forward the names of five worthy nominees.
Hera Lindsay Bird. The biggest-selling New Zealand poet since basically ever, Bird’s self-titled debut collection from 2016 remains a startling and tremendously likeable book. Everyone went on about the bad language and bare cheek but all she was really doing was writing really beautiful love poems. God she’d be an awesome – and awesomely popular – laureate.
Kevin Ireland. He was born in 1933 – 1933! – but he’s in better nick than you: the guy just came back from fly fishing in remotest Southland, and no one can spin a better or more lyrical yarn than the one that got away. He’s the author of 24 collections of poetry and will forever be celebrated for his lines, “thin men write gaunt poems/ and each word sticks out like a rib”.
Tusiata Avia. You want a laureate who can stand in front of people and put them under a spell of words, you want Samoan-New Zealand writer Tusiata Avia, who makes spells as a published poet (she’s the author of three collections, the most recent being Fale Aitu in 2017) and the performer of her one-woman poetry show, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, later adapted by Victor Rodger as a stage play.
Bob Orr. This guy has quietly gone about writing some of the best verse in New Zealand over the past 50 years. He featured in the great 1973 anthology The Young New Zealand Poets alongside revolutionaries such as Wedde, Manhire, and Hunt, and went on to write nine collections, each of them blazingly original and easy on the ear. His great poem “Friday Night, Alhambra Bar” about the late Bill Payne’s gift of a leather jacket is a modern classic.
Colin Craig. The most famous poet in New Zealand – and yet he’s never wanted to take credit for “Two of Me”, surely the only poem to be dissected and analysed in the High Court. “If instead one man, I was two/That would be one for all the others/And one of me, for you.” That’s actually really good! God he’d make an awesome – and awesomely unpopular – laureate.