Friday, 27 January 2017

The Relentless Search: Educational Achievement and Success

Bernadine Vester, author of Southern Transformation: Searching for education success in South Auckland, writes about ideas of educational success in the context of South Auckland schools.

Simon, graduate of decile two Edgewater College, is part of a prize-winning team of engineers who have developed a drone that can operate in strong or gusty winds and at greater angles than other models, providing better results for cinematographers. It’s a commercial winner. Simon and his friend Hannah, who started at Edgewater on the same day, are both doctoral students at Cambridge University in the UK. They join large numbers of high-fliers who attended low-decile schools in South Auckland and have gone on to great academic success. The point being, of course, that you don’t have to attend a high-decile school to achieve educational success.
However, stories of individuals don’t trump broader public perceptions about educational success in South Auckland; too often, they are treated as the exception proving the rule. South Auckland is ripe for educational improvement, we are told. When you want to embark on educational improvement, you begin by defining educational achievement and success. Is it getting the qualification? A job? Raising the country’s GDP? Personal and family well-being? Attending a prestigious university in a foreign country?
A clear, widely shared definition of education success is an elusive thing. Some time ago, New Zealand political decision-makers decided that our education system would be measured against the number of students who achieved NCEA Level 2. This became a public service target – a singularity that would improve our ranking in global system measures, enable unemployed youth access jobs and higher education, and identify which schools and students needed more funding and support to fix the social dysfunctions of places like South Auckland.
The top-down push to deliver on the target seems to be winning the day: the numbers look good. Between 2009 and 2015 there was an 11.6 percentage point increase in the number of school-leavers with NCEA Level 2 or equivalent. Asian students had the highest success rate, and Māori the lowest. The target (85% by age 18) is a stretch but improvement seems within reach, with an emphasis on achievement rates for students who are Māori and/or Pasifika.
This makes South Auckland an area of focus.
NCEA Level 2 is an economic ‘productivity marker’. It’s an assessment of the value of state investment in learning. The qualification is a desired ‘efficiency’ for an economy demanding ever higher levels of knowledge and skill. For the sake of the national economy, Auckland’s students need NCEA Level 2. But static youth unemployment rates and slow GDP growth in Auckland betray this assumption.
The qualification has become fraught with middle-class angst. In a market of qualifications, assessment systems are being asked to differentiate personal quality in a global job market. Markets work not just on supply and demand; they also operate on branding and prestige. International private qualifications, run by for-profit companies, play on their reputations for class and global reward. There is no publicly accessible data about them; they are permitted in public schools by global trade agreements and paid for by family aspiration. Knowledge and skills are important currency, but qualifications don’t necessarily lead to economic success. If this were so, countries and regions with highly educated workforces would have high-growth economies – but Spain, Portugal, the UK and the US have large numbers of unemployed graduates. Something else is at work: social value and exclusivity. NCEA Level 2 is becoming a common-garden qualification. Is it true that the more that low-decile schools succeed with their Māori and Pasifika students in meeting the NCEA Level 2 target, the less desirable the qualification they deliver becomes? In a world where status is the market, the goals posts shift simply when the market replaces the local qualification with an international one. Inequalities rise.
Not just students, but schools too, are measured by NCEA. Schools have responded to the 85% target to offer very differentiated programmes. There are upsides and downsides to this. With the wrong credits, students might limit their options. With the right credits, students become eligible for apprenticeships and company-paid training, arguably as good a track for well-paying jobs as any university degree. Any school can mix and match the credits they offer, helping to shape success. Delivering the numbers is what public services are supposed to do. Over time, NCEA Level 2 in a high-decile school begins to look very different from NCEA Level 2 in a low-decile school.
The curriculum offerings of public schools depend heavily on their definitions (backed by parent-led boards) of what success looks like. To many, success in the public mind equals achieving University Entrance – never mind that you don’t need to go to university to establish a solid career (in technical trades, for example). Some have argued that schools apparently 'cheat' young people out of a future by tracking them into options that don’t lead there. NCEA is innovative, internationally portable, quality-assured, able to be applied to both academic and vocation futures, and flexible. These qualities make it very useful for a national education system. NCEA Level 2 can be constructed for a job in barista services and a job engineering for drones. This is NCEA’s strength – and also its Achilles’ heel.
Defining educational achievement and success is a complex question. Simon’s chances of getting to Cambridge University and leading a team to make a commercially viable drone did not depend solely on his school (although clearly it added important value). NCEA was a milestone in his schooling career, not the goalpost.
There are many possible goals in education. NCEA Level 2 is not, however, an indicator that poverty has been beaten, social prejudices removed, spiritual or temporal well-being attained, or even that one has graduated with a passport for a job. The sum knowledge of the world may never be distilled into qualifications. So we over-estimate their importance if we see them as the relentless and only goal. 

Bernadine Vester is the foundation chief executive of the City of Manukau Education Trust (COMET) and operates her own consultancy business.

Southern Transformation: Searching for education success in South Auckland is available for purchase on VUP's online bookstore and at the best bookshops.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

VUP closing hours over Christmas

VUP will be closed from 22 December 2016 until 9 January 2017. Any web orders received after 22 December will not be processed until 9 January. But if you really need our books - go to one of the excellent bookshops that stock us.

Happy summer reading everyone!

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Six questions for Catherine Chidgey

Catherine Chidgey (photo by Fiona Pardington)

Could you start by telling me about the genesis for The Wish Child? Is this a period of history you’ve always wanted to write about?

I didn’t deliberately sit down and think right, now I’d better produce a WW2 novel, but in hindsight it seems natural that my work took that direction. My father was a child during the war and as an adult he had a particular interest in the period, so I grew up exposed to books and documentaries about it. 

I studied German at school and at Victoria, and when I was 16 I spent three months on exchange in Germany. One of my host families lived in a farmhouse near Lüneburg, and some aspects of my time with them have made their way into the book. In particular I remember Herr K talking to me one day about the war. It was just the two of us, and he told me about his experiences fighting in Russia – he said there was very little for the soldiers to eat, and when they came to a field of watermelon they fell on them and gorged themselves, they were so hungry. He also said that if he hadn’t killed, it would have been an act of suicide. That conversation stayed with me. 

Then in 1993 I went to Berlin to study, and found myself living in a city in which the past – and in particular the war – seemed always present, always visible. You could still see bomb damage and shrapnel marks and bullet holes on the buildings, particularly in the east, and Sachsenhausen concentration camp lay just to the north of the city. One of the professors at my university showed us a campus building – now the department of Political Science – that had been the site of medical experiments during the Third Reich. He also took us on a trip to Buchenwald concentration camp, purportedly built around Goethe’s famous oak tree; we stayed overnight in the former SS quarters. It was powerful stuff for a fledgling writer. I remember, too, seeing a beautiful old Berlin building that had been bombed in the war; the façade featured caryatids in the form of children who were holding up the windows, but they were badly damaged. It seemed to suggest something rather poignant about a child’s experience of war, and I tucked it away to use in my writing. 

The real spark for the novel came, though, when I stumbled across a reference to the mysterious figure who narrates the book. I realised I had to give this forgotten person a voice, but at first I was frustrated when researching him; the sources did not agree on the facts of his life and death, or even on his name or gender. One story contradicted another. In the end, however, these very contradictions were a gift, informing and shaping the novel.

The Wish Child is an incredibly complex, textured piece of writing – all these delicate plot threads that slowly weave together to form an incredible tapestry about war and violence, and love and friendship and the consequences of bad deeds.  How did you go about creating such a dense, full story? How long did it take you to write it?

This particular child demanded rather a long gestation – 13 years. That was partly due to life getting in the way, but also because of the intricacy of the story I wanted to tell. It took some time to find its voice – it started off as quite a different book, actually, about a boy whose mother was a film star in Nazi Germany – but those sections ended up on the cutting-room floor. I don’t see that as wasted time, though – what you remove from a book defines it as much as what remains.

Gottlieb Heilmann’s job as Senior Retrospective Editor, Publications Division, is a terrifying illustration and metaphor for how history gets cleaned up, and erased under totalitarian leadership – you even have him erasing the word ‘God’ from the Bible! I think you made this job up?  It’s a marvelous creation to have in a novel and for a writer to play with.

I did invent Gottlieb’s job, yes – it’s one of a few instances in the book that verge on magical realism. He methodically cuts forbidden words from books, and as the war progresses the number of words on the forbidden list increases. When we talk about Germany under Hitler, we often use words like ‘unbelievable’ or ‘unthinkable’. We ask ourselves how something so unimaginable could have happened. The Germany of The Wish Child, therefore, although historically accurate in many respects, is in other respects not quite real. It was a way for me to comment on the absurdity of a regime in which language and meaning were routinely manipulated and abused – ‘special treatment’ meant execution by lethal gas; ‘protective custody’ meant anything but.

You’re a German speaker? And reader? How did you go about creating the texture of 1940s Germany? I would think that taking a period in history that is not only well documented in non-fiction, but also in fiction, has its hazards and possibly makes the novelist’s job harder because it can seem like somewhere we’ve all been before, which it doesn’t here.

I was already familiar with Germany, both rural and metropolitan, and of course a lot of the architecture I encountered when I lived there was present during the period – so I drew on my memories of particular structures, and wandered around Google Maps (a wonderful tool for writers). I also immersed myself in the everyday literature and ephemera of the period – ration booklets, advertising, women’s magazines, menus, children’s books, as well as eye-witness accounts. Being able to read German obviously came in very handy with that sort of research. The internet has allowed me to access some fascinating and obscure documents that would have been difficult to find otherwise – a guide for leaders of Hitler Youth groups for girls, for instance, on appropriate activities for 10-year-olds (singing, sewing, learning about the life of Adolf Hitler), or a fairly deranged propaganda leaflet produced in the final desperate months of the war in which ‘two possibilities’ are presented to Berliners – the options including hanging themselves or being liquidated by the Russian army.

Your story is a story of ordinary Nazi families, and how the WW2 affected them. It’s a fine balancing act to strike between representing the banality of evil and not reducing the evil. I have a feeling that the point of view of the children is important here as their understanding of what is going on is limited, but tell me, how did you go about making ground that feels fresh to tread here? Is this something you even thought about?

I was aware that many writers before me have trod this terrain, yes – but I always try to come at my writing from an original angle. Discovering the narrator’s story when I was researching was a real turning point – I knew straight away that it belonged in the novel, and indeed that this cryptic voice formed the heart of the novel, allowing me to shift in and out of the minds of the two children and their parents. I can’t say too much more than that without giving the game away, though! Something else I did was to splice in quotes from songs, poems, speeches of the period – sometimes overtly, but often subliminally. So for instance, a comment by Hitler on the attractiveness of German children finds its way into the mouth of Erich’s mother; a teacher quotes a speech by Goebbels as if the words are her own. This was a way of expressing something of the zeitgeist, and showing how completely evil can penetrate the attitudes of ‘ordinary’ people; I hope, too, that it lends the writing a kind of heightened immediacy.

It’s been thirteen years since your third novel, The Transformation, was published. How does it feel to be releasing your fourth novel?

I feel relieved, nervous, excited. The book has been part of my life for so long – I am more than ready to let this child find its way in the world.

The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey is available for purchase from 10 November at all good bookshops and through our online bookstore.
$30 pb, $45 hb.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

A message from JC

John Campbell couldn't make the launch for Nick Ascroft's Back With The Human Condition, but he did send this....

Ashleigh Young reads a telegram at Nick Ascroft's launch

Dear Nick,

Hello, it's John Campbell here.

I'm so sorry I couldn't be there tonight. I'm in a coma. Or hosting Checkpoint, which, depending on who I'm interviewing, may feel like the same thing.

Ashleigh kindly invited me. And I would have loved to have come. I think your book's fantastic, not withstanding the inexplicable mystery of why you didn't help that Chinese grandmother with her shopping bags?

Jesus, Nick. What kind of person are you?

And while we're asking the big questions – whose idea was it to use a photo of you in a dressing gown on the back of the book?

Did Hera Lindsay Bird put you up to that?

Fergus must have been appalled!

You'll regret it.

Later, when a signed first edition inevitably makes its way to the Houghton Library at Harvard, to sit beside Dickinson, cummings, Frost, Stevens, Williams, and the like, and you go to visit with your grandchildren – those hallowed halls, all hushed reverence before the magnificence of such words – they'll ask you: "Granddad, why are you in a dressing gown? Did Hera Lindsay Bird put you up to that?"

And an older one will ask, incredulous that anyone would confess to this: "Granddad – did you really have sex in your socks?"

Having said that, and overcoming my deep disappointment at not being there to see Kate's haircut, I'd like to say, Nick, that your poetry is gorgeous.

Sparkling and delicious.

So full of wonder, and curiosity, and a profound but not reverent awareness of life – of how absurd it is, and funny, and great, and seriously unserious.

Nick, there are poems that are so superb, I wish I was there to hear you read them.

What a great book this is!

I shall cherish it.

And return to it over and over for years to come.

I'm better dressed than you, obviously, but am gratefully in awe of the way it pops at me, again and again, every a poem a bomb, making me arise from my slumber - my coma - line after line, poem after poem. And you, there - "a moon, punched all over with old bruises, but whole, orbiting on, pressing on, whole."

Congratulations, Nick.

What a great book.

And thank you.

Yours, in admiration,


Be like John Campbell and order your copy here today!

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Nick Ascroft – 4 Questions

Nick Ascroft (Grant Maiden Photography)

You are counted in the pantheon of genuinely funny poets – let’s not name the others in case we hurt feelings... Did you make a conscious decision to not write in a serious timbre or is it simply the way it came out? Were you writing like this when you started to write poetry?

There’s a great song from last year by Wilco called ‘The Joke Explained’ off the album they inexplicably called Star Wars and put a cat on the cover of. I think this somehow encapsulates my answer to your question. Ah, it doesn’t, does it. Gah. Nonetheless I love a line in the middle of the song: ‘It’s a staring contest, in a hall of mirrors.'

Poetry can seem a little high and grand to people, and writers of it, wary of this public and their idea that a certain height and grandeur is expected, can try and force the stuff out. But it’s a nasty trap, this temptation to write in a style that sounds to the ear like something that will convince others it bespeaks poetry. TS Eliot bumbled into it. A funny poet, writing about buffoons with rolled up trousers, he became popular and felt he had to write poetry worthy of his ideas about poetry. Four Quartets? Snore me a sickbag.

I think of Kushana Bush’s art. It’s full of depth, insight and historical reference, but it’s haha-funny, and she’s kept it funny while art-world chin-strokers have praised it in solemn tones. That isn’t easy. So she’s the paradigm I follow.

Do I try to be funny? Yes, as shameful as that sounds to admit. And often enough I really bomb, and the tumbleweeds whistle past. I remember Pamela Gordon once saying that poets were just failed stand-up comedians. And it’s a little bit true. Poetry also allows you to be funny-hmm, you know: ‘I find that funny. Right now I am experiencing amusement at your witticism.’ Or epigrammatic. In 1994, I wrote the first line of poetry that wasn’t just intended for a friend or family member to read. Kapka Kassabova had recommended I enter a student competition with Rob Allan as one of the judges. The first line was: ‘Let’s consummate our divorce with a documentary.’ It was funny to me anyway, and as ever I didn’t win but got my first of many ‘commendations’. I had a punkish outlook on poetry when I started and that’s easy in your twenties. But it gets harder to sell: that middle-aged public servant is so irreverent.

The ultimate answer to your question though is I don’t have as much control over what I write as I think I do. I write mostly quite traditional sonnets and unfortunately a lot of experimental poetry. I hate experimental poetry. What’s the experiment? What’s even the hypothesis? I hypothesise you won’t want to read this twice? Bullseye. It’s another veil in the seeming of poetry: that’s so weird it must be poetry and not an annoying five minutes I could’ve spent on biscuits. And yet, yes I write the stuff and I desperately want you to read it.

Your new book is split into four sections: ‘Love’, ‘Money’, ‘Complaints’ and ‘Death’. Explain ‘Complaints’? Is that instead of ‘Family,' or is it the same thing?

The splitting is convenience and an afterthought. It was about sandwiching the poems into the themes they seemed mostly to be falling in. ‘Complaints’ was the ‘everything else’ probably, as I generally whine about something as some point in a poem. ‘Death’ is the best section I think, and perhaps I should’ve shuttled it to the front, but I’m too much of a boring pedant to start with death.

This is a minor point when considering your work, but there is something un-New Zealand about your poety – no gazing upon our ‘pure’ skies or water, no laconic references to sheds. Your landscapes, in their rare appearances, are northern hemisphere, or a mix of places. What are your influences and do you see yourself as a part of any mode of poetry writing?

I think my last two books were more NZ-centred, and the lack of the shearing-shed backdrop is simply a product of having lived most of the period writing this book in the UK. I’m self-publishing a sci-fi novel set in Southland later this year which will redress the balance.

I’m a big fan of Richard Reeve’s poetry, and you can’t imagine his poems without the place they are happening in. But for whatever reason I can be a bit blind to the world beyond the walls. Things happen in human habitation zones: houses, offices, streets and rookeries. OK not rookeries yet, but I’ve been trying to work the following line into a poem all year: snug as a buggery in a rookery.

As to my influences, it’s difficult to say. Everything you read and hear and see has its effect and response. Certain writers’ voices stick in my head – Richard, John Dolan, David Eggleton and Cilla McQueen spring to mind – but I don’t think I mimic them. Perhaps I occasionally mimic certain nineteenth and twentieth-century poets I admire. Song lyrics certainly. I think the screenplay to Withnail & I by Bruce Robinson has been massively influential, as have the wordier skits Monty Python, Peter Cook or Fry & Laurie. I’d like to say PG Wodehouse. Is it true? I don’t know. Tina Fey, that’s demonstrably the case.

You delight in language – have you always done so? Do you keep the OED in your brain? And how, if at all, does this connect to your Scrabble playing? Are the Scrabble brain and the poetry brain connected?

Delights are dangerous of course. There are some poems where I know I am just delighting myself. Why has he used the word ‘impachydermatous’ or rhymed ‘cowlick these’ with ‘galaxies’? These days I try to invent fewer words, as it is a kind of excess. But this is my whole problem.

I remember interviewing Vivienne Plumb and she spoke of how writing poems involves whittling down the words into a minimally perfect skeleton. I was shocked. This should’ve been educational but I still see ‘overwriting’ as poetry.

I am genuinely delighted by language, which every drab old poet says, but it’s just true. And the delight is what sustains both my reading of others’ poetry and the writing of my own. Perhaps my most successful poems are those where I don’t wear that delight so loudly on my sleeve, or I distract you from it, but I need the delight to bother at all.

I think the Scrabble urge and the sonnet-writing urge are similar. It’s the mathematical puzzle. Scrabble also sneaks words into my poems. The word ‘eloigns’ in the poem ‘The Thirst of Lucy’s Copy’ sitting beside ‘lingos’ and ‘longshoremen’ is no accident. In Scrabble the words LINGOES (an alternate spelling of the plural), ELOIGNS and LONGIES (which means longshoremen) are anagrams, and the poem works as a mnemonic to help me remember that. Ah, a weight has lifted in confessing it. But again I try to avoid using words memorised for Scrabble tournaments in poems. Slowly I will clamp down on all my delighting until I’m like that no-dancing protestant town in Footloose awaiting its Kevin Bacon.

Back With The Human Condition by Nick Ascroft, p/b, $25. Available now.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Tim Wilson – 5 Questions

Tim Wilson (photo by Nicholas George)

What made you want to write a sequel to News Pigs? 

Neither the characters, nor New York would let me go. I had some things to say about NYC, about status, about anxiety, about insurgency there, and about the whole class––wiped out now––of writers and bohemians that scrounged out a living pre-Internet Ascendancy. This novel seemed like the right spot. As I was writing, Donald Trump commenced his rise. How could I leave him out? I spent a pleasant anxious afternoon with The Don through my job with TVNZ. Do you know what? His hair is real. Everything else? I can’t say. We fell out, sadly, Mr Trump and I, and no longer talk. He didn’t like the piece I did; I doubt he’ll enjoy The Straight Banana either. Note: ignorance of News Pigs is no barrier to reading The Straight Banana.   

The main character in The Straight Banana and News Pigs, Thomas Tudehope Milde, is a New York correspondent for Erewhon TV of ‘the PLC’ (Plucky Little Country). You spent ten years as the New York correspondent for One News. How much of Tom Milde is you?

What an outrageous suggestion! True, I was working for TVNZ for most of my time in NYC. I once worked in print, like Milde. I’ve botched stories, like Tom; my first job for TVNZ was a total washout. I’ve read widely, but without depth. I know what a bar looks like at 9.10 pm; 11.20 pm, 1.45 and 3.38 am. I’ve roistered with vivid, insalubrious characters. I remember a cameraman in Portland whose strategy for parking was to vandalise every meter he parked at, then send an immediate letter of complaint to the local authorities. The notion of fictional biography fascinates me, just as it mesmerises Milde. My mother’s middle name is Tudehope; so what? I love reading and writing, and yet appear to be a man of action; I once enjoyed dinner at the Harvard Club, like Tom Milde. Such trifling coincidences aside, this is a work of pure imagination.

Like News PigsThe Straight Banana is packed with references, in-jokes, wacky fonts, quizzes and off-the-wall layout. Do you think books have a duty to entertain the reader?

Books have no duty to entertain readers, but they must entertain their writers. I want to write the kind of book that I’d like to read, one that mimics the junky energy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ and New York itself, a place where half a morning on the streets can leave you feeling like you’ve been on an all-night Scotch binge. The Straight Banana has quizzes, a pie graph, diary entries, and a painting by one of the greatest artists of the era. Thumb through it, and the eye jumps here and there. But it’s also a plot-driven story that involves increasing jeopardy for Tom Milde. Books are to be read, devoured hopefully. One of the greatest compliments ever paid News Pigs was from someone who was reading it in tandem with Anna Karenin. He confessed that for relief, he kept finding himself drawn to my book. There’s the tag line: Bored of Tolstoy? Try Wilson.

Recently in a panel on comic writing, Danyl Mclauchlan said that when he went back to redraft his latest novel he took all the jokes out and that made it funnier. Making people laugh is hard work, are there any tricks to humour that you’ve discovered in your writing?

Humour is like dancing. If others agree you’re doing it, you are.

You’ve got two young children, present shows on TV and radio, and you’ve just written a novel. Do you ever sleep?

My wife is the best; she likes me to write. I take Fridays off to do novels, but spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m writing the rest of the week. On Friday, mostly I’m mooching around the house with my head in other places. Fortunately, I’m still available to change nappies, and replace dummies. Yes, we use dummies in our house. I love writing. I’m so blessed to be able to do it. Admittedly, time is a problem; if I’d had more of it I might have written a shorter book.

The Straight Banana by Tim Wilson is available at the best bookshops and online at VUP now.
$30, p/b. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

An interview with Jenny Bornholdt

Jenny Bornholdt (photo by Deborah Smith)

What is like looking back over such a large body of work to make decisions for what to include in the Selected Poems?

It was like watching an old home movie––black and white and a bit shaky. I felt overwhelmed by it; by the way it took me back to when I was in my twenties and thirties. I had to stop looking at the poems for a while, then it was okay again. I was surprised that the poems affected me in this way ––I don’t mean because of their brilliance! Just that because they are emotionally pretty open, it was like bumping into an early version of myself and that was unsettling.

I’d already done this once before, for Miss New Zealand, and it’s not as though I don’t look at the early poems, or read them at readings, but there was something about methodically working my way through those books.

Were there poems you felt particularly pleased with after all these years? Or some you thought, what the hell was I thinking?

I didn’t ever think ‘what the hell!’ but I sometimes winced a bit. I still feel very fond of the ‘Sophie’ pieces––I remember the feeling of writing those––it was the first time I felt that everything I read or saw or felt or thought fed into the work. A bit like when I wrote The Rocky Shore poems, though that was different again.

It was interesting to read the books in order––I could see a progression, though there are things common to most of them––that mix of short/long/prose...I do think I’ve got better, so that’s something.

It’s the later poems I felt especially good about, but maybe it’s like that for all poets.

Do you have a favourite poem or book of yours?

The Rocky Shore is my favourite book. It’s the one I loved writing most––I felt completely inside those poems when I was writing them. They were exciting to work on. I had them in my head the whole time and I remember running up the steps to my shed every morning because I couldn’t wait to get back to work.

When you look back over your body of work does it seem to you that you’ve changed how you approach writing poetry? Is there anything you’ve learned over your writing career that’s been a hard won lesson? (For example, I’m learning about patience in writing. I’ve not got it yet, but I’m learning that I need to find some!)

I’m not sure about that, because I don’t know that I have an approach. On the back cover of This Big Face I wrote that the poems were ‘going for some kind of clarity.’ That’s certainly changed. Now I think life is mostly a great big shambles and I’m happy to go along with that. The earlier poems seem quite neat, as in tidily put together, whereas I think the recent poems have an unruly element to them, which I like. I’m probably more relaxed about writing now–– maybe that’s my answer.

One of the things that is obvious reading over the selection is how your poems have become longer. Of course there was the wonderful early ‘Sophie travels backwards on a train’ which I often think of as a short film, but by the end of your Selected you’re striding out with feature films like ‘Big Minty Nose’. What is the delight of the long poem for you? A desire to tell a story? I know you’re a great reader of novels and stories. It was you who put me onto one of my favourite books of the last ten years Olive Kitteridge.

It’s nice you think of ‘Sophie’ as a short film. I did Russell Campbell’s great film courses at Victoria University in the early 80’s and always wanted to make a film, but was completely intimidated by the thought of having to operate a camera. Ridiculous, but that was how I felt, so ‘Sophie’ is probably my short film in print. And yes, the poems have got longer. I do love narrative and the longer poems are me wanting to tell something––a story I guess, or stories, saying ‘this happened, then this happened and then this’, but I hope they’re not as straightforward as that. I like the way you can play with narrative ––the loops and moves and echoes that are possible. Much of the delight is in feeling able to stretch out, especially in The Rocky Shore poems. I really felt I hit my stride with that book.

I do read a lot of novels and I’m very pleased you liked Olive Kitteridge. It’s still one of my favourite books. Her (Elizabeth Strout’s) new novel My Name is Lucy Barton is extraordinary––I’ve read it twice and am about to embark on it again because I want to work out how she does what she does. It’s quite strange and compelling.

Your voice has spawned a thousand imitations over the years, but no one quite gets it right. I think the thing with you, Jen, is your writing voice combines a light glance around the beautiful horrible wondrous things of the world, but the eye that’s watching them, and the mind that’s thinking and reporting back is steely and fierce. I think your imitators don’t get how important those two things in tango are. Your poems are, as Jane Stafford pointed out in one of my undergrad English classes (she was quoting a Jen Bornholdt poem) ‘a decoy of simplicity’. Can you talk a bit about how you developed your own voice? Is it a thing a writer can ‘develop’ or are you just speaking out what you really think on the page?

Those are very complimentary things you said. Thank you. I do feel quite fierce. 

Your question about voice–– I am speaking out what I think on the page. I don’t feel as though I had to find my voice, it was just there. Sometimes I tell people things and they say ‘that sounds like a Jenny Bornholdt poem’, so my own voice is obviously very close to my writing voice. It’s probably to do with the things I write about, which, as we know are pretty down home.

I’m sure it’s possible to develop a voice, I just don’t have the flair or imagination to be able to do that. A poet like Frederick Seidel––his is a voice I wouldn’t like to run into in a dark alley.

Any writers who are really doing it for you right now?

I’m reading a lot of NZ poetry because I’m editing Best New Zealand Poems for the IIML. There’s some great writing going on out there, but I’m not going to name names for fear of causing a riot.

Jenny Bornholdt's Selected Poems (h/b, $40) is released today, and launched tonight at Unity Books alongside Ashleigh Young's new essay collection, Can You Tolerate This?