Launching ‘Still Is’

On Friday 21 June, the National Library hosted the launch of former Poet Laureate Vincent O’Sullivan’s last poetry collection Still Is, published less than two months after he passed away in April.

Book cover of Still Is (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2024).

The evening was a heartwarming celebration of Vincent’s life and career, with contributions from Vincent’s family and those who knew him well. Te Herenga Waka University Press’ Fergus Barrowman shared lively anecdotes that highlighted Vincent’s wit and talent, shedding light on what it was like to work closely with him for 40 years.

I was honoured to be asked to read at the launch alongside former Laureates Bill Manhire and Jenny Bornholdt, and poets Gregory O’Brien and Diana Bridge who all spoke movingly about their friendships with Vincent. We each read a poem from Still Is as well as one of our own poems to complement Vincent’s. I wrote a new poem for the occasion in response to Vincent’s poem ‘The Trouble With Windows’.

Subtitles missing

Lately I have become untethered from stillness.
Here, in my little brown house caught in the shadow
of a neighbouring tower block, every room
rattles my patience. The tui and the sparrows
frolick at my kitchen window. I have never been
able to read their intent. I watch my neighbours
watch the day go by, each window a screen
of unquiet resolution. I feel as if we are
collectively haunted by some outdated expression
of freedom because the day is a dream we dream
when we have no other way to take flight.
On this side of the glass the view is idyllic
and industrious: every car on the motorway
is a passing vignette and every container ship
works against silken blue. Across the harbour,
the Eastern ranges remain staunch in their place.
Time collects on the wind, unbothered, while
my attention divides and scatters itself again
and again in search of an elusive synchronicity.
My imagination’s fieldnotes are entirely made up
of subtitles for every window I look into or
out of. Nearly all of them are questions, like
‘How can we prove what never occurred?’
and ‘What waits for us on the other side?’.
Like daybreak, the tui and the sparrows reappear.
They ask for so little. A lesson, surely, given
we are prone to asking for what must be earned.

— Chris Tse

Chris at the Still Is book launch and reading. Image credit Marcelo Duque Cesar.

A tribute to Vincent O’Sullivan (1937–2024)

He is one of us, he is one of our own.
He bears the coasts, the mountains for us,
He calls to the north and the south on our behalf,
To the east and the west, he carries the voice of his people.

Nō tātou ake ia, he tangata ia nō tātou tonu
Ka wahā e ia ngā takutai, ngā maunga, mō tātou,
Ka karanga ia ki te raki, ki te tonga mō tātou.
Ki te rāwhiti, ki te hauāuru rā anō, ka kawea e ia te reo o tōna iwi. 

(Translation: Piripi Walker) 

These words were written by Vincent for Requiem for the Fallen, a collaborative work with his close friend, the composer Ross Harris, which was performed at Old St Paul’s for the New Zealand Arts Festival in 2014. These lines seem apt, as the National Library shares its sense of loss to New Zealand letters, with Vincent’s death in Dunedin on 28 April.

Vincent O’Sullivan. Photo by Helen O’Sullivan

The relationship the National Library and Alexander Turnbull Library had with Vincent lies at the heart of our work, and evidence of this abounds. It includes his research here as pre-eminent scholar of Katherine Mansfield, notably producing his co-edition of the five volumes of Mansfield’s letters with Margaret Scott between 1984 and 2008. The Turnbull Library is also home to Vincent’s literary papers, at MS-Group-1526.

In 2013 Vincent was appointed New Zealand Poet Laureate. He made his intentions clear early on: ‘I don’t think many prescriptions for poetry stand up apart from one – if it isn’t individual, if it’s not “the cry of its occasion”, then why aren’t we doing something else’ His time as Laureate was marked by a generosity towards and recognition of fellow poets in New Zealand and around the world, with a special place reserved for the voices of the oppressed poet.

His volume of collected poetry Being Here, was launched at the National Library in April 2015 and we have chosen to include its title poem to represent his achievements, his profundity and elegance. The photo of Vincent was taken in Italy by his wife Helen.

Requiescat in pace, Vincent.

— Peter Ireland, for the National Library

Being Here

It has to be a thin world surely if you ask for
an emblem at every turn, if you cannot see bees
arcing and mining the soft decaying galaxies
of the laden apricot tree without wanting
symbols – which of course are manifold – symbols
of so much else? What’s amiss with simply the huddle
and glut of bees, with those fuzzed globes
by the hundred and the clipped-out sky
beyond them and the leaves that are black
if you angle the sun directly behind them,
being themselves, for themselves? I hold out
my palms like the opened pages of a book
and you pile apricots on them stacked three
deep, we ask just who can we give them to
round here who hasn’t had their whack of apricots
as it is? And I let my hands tilt and the plastic
bag that you hold rustles and plumps with their
rush, I hold one back and bite into it and its
taste is the taste of the colour exactly, and this
hour precisely, and memory I expect is storing
for an afternoon far removed from here
when the warm furred almost weightlessness
of the fruit I hold might very well be a symbol
of what’s lost and we keep wanting, which after
all is to crave the real, the branches cutting
across the sun, your standing there while I tell you,
‘Come on, you have to try one!’, and you do,
and the clamour of bees goes on above us, ‘This
will do’, both of us saying, ‘like this, being here!’

— Vincent O’Sullivan

Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems 2023 selected by Chris Tse

Since 2001 the International Institute of Modern Letters has been home to Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems. There is a guest editor for each selection and in 2023, this was our Poet Laureate, Chris Tse. Our Poets Laureate feature prominently in editors to date and Chris joined Laureate alumni Elizabeth Smither, Ian Wedde, Vincent O’Sullivan, Jenny Bornholdt, Selina Tusitala Marsh, and David Eggleton in accepting this rewarding if daunting assignment.

Of the 25 poems (from nearly 4000!) to make the cut, Chris observed:

‘Individually, these 25 poems are tender, aggressive, funny, angry, and contemplative. Collectively, they emphasise the power of poetry to communicate with an open heart without fear of retribution. These are the poems that surprised and delighted me the most, that made me pause to sit in my own discomfort or revel in another poet’s joy. Above all, they’re the poems I thought other people need to read.’

To read Chris’s full introduction and to read (and hear some of) the poems, and to spend time looking back down the years of New Zealand poetry in this century, have a look at the Best New Zealand poems website.

Thank you, Chris, a job well done!

Peter Ireland
for the National Library


It was a scorching day in Washington DC in late July, but rather than seeking shelter from the heat and humidity in one of the city’s many air-conditioned museums, I found myself in a school gymnasium thrumming with the laughter of 40 kids and adults chasing a soccer ball across the polished floor. The kids were ‘poet-athletes’ taking part in a summer camp programme with DC SCORES, a not-for-profit organisation that uses soccer and poetry to ‘give kids the confidence and skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom, and in life’. My indoor soccer days were far behind me, so I was there in my capacity as Aotearoa’s Poet Laureate.

I was in Washington DC as a member of Slow Currents, a cohort of Asian diaspora writers from Aotearoa and Australia. In 2022, we participated in online workshops with Asian American writers, including Pulitzer Prize winners Viet Thanh Nguyen and Hua Hsu, and acclaimed Palestinian American poet George Abraham. The main purpose of our trip to DC was a two-week residency to work on our individual projects and to meet with key people in the Asian American writing community to share knowledge and ideas about how we can empower and create opportunities for our own communities. We also lined up some last-minute events while we were in town, including performances at the famous Busboys & Poets, and the first-ever open mic at the Kennedy Centre. (The Asian American Literature Festival, which we were due to participate in, was abruptly cancelled in the week leading up to us arriving in the States. To date, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center has failed to give organisers and participants a transparent reason for the cancellation. There’s murmurs that the programme’s trans and non-binary content spooked the Sminthsonian’s conservative stakeholders.)

Exhibition with lots of coloured boxes and screens and the title "You want a poem".
The culture galleries at the National Museum of African
 American History & Culture, Washington D.C. Photo by Chris Tse. 

Before leaving a typical Wellington winter for summer in Washington DC, I reached out to the New Zealand Embassy to see whether there might be opportunities for me to partner with them for an event while I was in DC. The timing couldn’t have been better—the Embassy had been working with DC SCORES to plan a day to celebrate the FIFA Women’s World Cup being hosted in Aoteaora and Australia.

Despite my initial scepticism about soccer and poetry being natural bedfellows, I was instantly won over by the kids’ enthusiasm for both. After sharing some of my poems, I fielded some creative and incisive questions from the kids. What I love about moments like this is that it strengthens my own relationship to poetry, and reminds me how powerful it can be to connect with others through the power of storytelling and poetry. As much as the laureateship has been about raising my own profile as a poet and promoting poetry in general, it’s also taught me a lot about myself and how the role of Poet Laureate can act as an intermediary — something like a poetry matchmaker, if you will.

Today is National Poetry Day, which means I’m now halfway through my two-year term. Over the past year, I’ve met and spoken with thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds, from running writing workshops in schools to meeting with a public sector organisation’s pan-Asian staff network. Each of these engagements has been a chance to share my love of poetry and gauge people’s feelings about what is often considered an impenetrable and inaccessible art form.

I know some have had bad experiences with poetry because of how it was taught at school, but my appeal to them is to let that go — start afresh and embrace poetry that speaks to them and their interests. As an artform, poetry is as varied as music or film—there truly is something out there for everyone, from Chaucer to spoken word. I’m heartened when teenagers tell me they’re reading contemporary New Zealand poets (by choice!) or when a retired grandmother makes their debut at an open mic. All of this reinforces to me that poetry can be for everyone — it’s about finding a way into it that resonates with them.

I’d be lying if I said the past year hasn’t been hectic — my entire life has shifted to put poetry front and centre. It’s been chaotic in the best way and surprising too (for starters, I never imagined I’d see my face plastered on the backs of buses). Invitations to speak and perform have come from as far as Invercargill and Leeds in the U.K., which is where I’ll be next month for a festival. As I told the kids at DC SCORES, I knew I’d never represent Aotearoa in sport, but I’m immensely proud to represent our country and its phenomenal poets on a global stage.

Man reading from a book to a group of children,

Chris Tse reads to poet-athletes at DC SCORE's summer school programme in Washington D.C., July 2023.

If there’s one thing I want to achieve before my term is over, it’s to shift perceptions about poetry being ‘difficult’ to help people find new ways into enjoying it. We’re surrounded by poetry, from the way shadows scatter themselves on the pavement to someone being moved to speak out about injustice.

I’ve no doubt that I have another busy year filled with poetry ahead of me, and I can’t wait to share it with Aotearoa and the world. 

Chris would like to thank the New Zealand Embassy in Washington DC for arranging his visit to DC SCORES, and Creative New Zealand for its support of the Slow Currents residency.

Number 13 — Inauguration weekend poem

I’m trying to get into the habit of writing new poems to read at each event I participate in as the Poet Laureate, and I knew that for my inauguration weekend, I wanted to read something that acknowledged the Poets Laureate who have come before me.

I decided to write an acrostic using the surnames of the 12 previous Laureates. I’ve found that the acrostic form has forced me to write more linearly than I usually do. Thus each line revealed itself one by one over a couple of months as I chipped away at the poem. The final result is part homage and part manifesto, a testament to the power of poetry to change hearts and minds.

Number 13

Must be the way a poem kickstarts a world into being that

alters how time leans into itself. The rise and fall of oceans

never felt so slow or sticky on your skin, salt crusting between

heartbeats. The delicious moon—all-seeing and all-knowing—

inches across the night sky while sad songs crackle on the

radio. Must be fire and flood swooping in to play their part when

everything is bent beyond recognition. Pray for the good old days.

The before times. The once and once more. We have a habit of

U-Turning when faced with not liking where we’re heading. Oh

wicked, stubborn fate—who’s to say that we can outpace the

hardest of truths? That we are fallible. That we are fools for

attempting to chart our own lives. Poets will ensure that these

revelations are broken to us in the kindest way, like a parent

easing their child into a bedtime ritual. The mind wanders,

skips over crucial details when recalling a memory

made at our most vulnerable to scarring. Are those made

in usual circumstances worth holding in the eternal vault?

Take dreams as an example: there is nothing unusual or

humbling about sleep. Most dreams aren’t memories worth

entertaining. And yet, I have a recurring dream in which

RuPaul asks, ‘What would you say to 10-year-old Christopher?’.

This is the trope I hate the most: tricking my inner child to

unpack intergenerational trauma or make peace with what

returns to sting me when I let down my guard. If I only had

nerve to excoriate the judges for this scripted farce, but I can’t

escape expectation. I’ve been thinking about legacy and

royalty—arrangements designed to make us feel like we

belong to some powerful chain. Link by link we forge

ornamental pathways backwards and forwards, left and

right—words whistling in every direction in search of

new ears to fall upon. A poem is a key, is a map, is a

hidden place filled with the answers to questions you

only ever ask yourself when you’re alone. There’s nothing

lost between a poem and its reader—an open mind and

derring-do will take you far if you hand yourself over to

the invisible strings of each melodious line. If gravity were to

loosen its grip you might find yourself melting into the

eventide, echoes of other worlds ushering you onwards,

grief-stricken by what has been, or empowered by what is

granted a spotlight in your fantasies. I still long for utopia

or at the very least a future where we no longer need to

teach children how to hide from mass shooters stalking

their school corridors. I have excavated and polished all

my fears and frustrations to display in the world’s most

complicated museum exhibition. No amount of hurt can

quieten my overachiever Asian gene or deny my status as an

unreasonable artist with many obsessions to nurture until

everything is about race or gender or queerness. I want an

easy life too—hands free to caress the world in its velvets,

not to obsess or fret about the sharp edges that catch my

wild tongue. A pattern must be broken. A heavy heart needs

emptying to make room for courage. So I listen to Robyn’s

‘Dancing On My Own’ for the thousandth time to feel something

deeply—to unearth a memory loaded with the most powerful

emotion that will transform my simple words into a paean to

our shared joy. In the future, our desires will be soundtracked by

sadbangers—we will cry and let our cathartic tears crystallise

under our feet as we dance ourselves towards the blinding

light of better days. We will sing; we will lift our arms and

levitate, enraptured by the possibility that poetry holds.

If this is the path, if this is the way forward, let all our

voices be bold. Hear me: I am the Poet Laureate and I

approve this message! Now is the time for poetry to

nurse our crushes until we all die of embarrassment. I’ll

stand tall, facing the past, and instruct everyone to keep

tipping the scales in our favour. Assume the position—

ease our bodies against the tide that roars at us, “No

Admission”. I believe in our strength; I believe in self-

deprecation and letting poetry ruin every party it crashes.

Must be the page turning or the world tipping on its

axis, tradition glazed with the woozy afterglow of poets

reciting verse to manifest rebirth, a murmuration of

starlings filling the vast attics of our futures. If there’s

harmony there must be a chorus, voices matched and

etched into the walls we are learning to scale with ease.

Give me neither poverty nor riches; give me myself again.

Give me love and give me hope; give me myself again.

Line by line and brick by brick, build something that will

equip us to change the world. I am sentimental for a 

time that does not yet exist but that I know is somewhere

out there—a half-beginning, a half-sense of something

not entirely out of reach. Must be the way a poem can

tell you where to stand to see every crack or where to

start a fire to light the way for others. Describe what you

expect to see on the other side. Tell us how you want to feel.

— Chris Tse

Smiling chinese man in a green suit holding a carved stick.
Chris Tse (the 13th Poet Laureate) holding his tokotoko carved by Jacob Scott.
Photo by Rebecca McMillan Photography. All rights reserved. 

Opening of “Long Waves of our Ocean: New responses to Pacific poems” exhibition

Chris joined us at the National Library recently for the opening of  Long Waves of our Ocean: New responses to Pacific poems and premiered his poem, the longest wave as a response to the central place of poetry in the exhibition.

The title of the exhibition is a line from the poem Stepping Stones by Albert Wendt:

"...and our islands are your anchor and launching site
for the universes that repeat and repeat

like the long waves of our ocean like Tagaloaalagi’s
compulsive scrutiny of what is to come and fear"

— Peter Ireland

~~~the longest wave~~~

I run from the mountains / through urban sprawl / through shopping malls / through air-conditioned office buildings / I run from desperation / and headlong into a joy that I hope will crush me / I run from ransom notes left on shattered windscreens / dead ends / bad weeks that won’t end / I run from narrative and happy endings / history presented as spillage / everybody involved making a petty mess /  I run from storms swallowing the skies / through fire and locust plague / I run with zoo animals released back into the wild / like public servants unshackled from security clearances and !P@55wordS / I run from social media and porn bots / from influencers selling me plastic bodies / from the urge to sleep through the anthropocene / I run from Christmas decorations in October and hot cross buns in January / through time-lapse decay and benefits realisation / through the haze of burning press releases about liveable cities / I run from my embarrassing teenage poetry / from thinly veiled metaphors jumping in and out of closets / in and out of the shared body heat of a crowd / out of breath / out like a light / but still wired / let me sleep / through white noise and bird song / through neighbours’ squabbles about boundary lines / I run from borders / away from units and definitions / away from inboxes overflowing with flattering comments / I run from infographics and statistics / that explain why we are miserable / from proof of our self-inflictions / I run in search of direction / away from need and want / from could’ve, should’ve, would’ve / I run from the canon / from my catalogue of ailments / past the sun and moon locked in their orbits / past the billboards advertising an impossible future / away from the party / each of us saving the best parts for later / but never finding the time to enjoy / I am here for a good time / I am here in salt / preserved for good measure / I am the longest wave / stretching beyond myself / I run to be lost and found / I run towards land / I run home

— Chris Tse

Chris reading ~~~the longest wave~~~ at the opening of  Long Waves of our Ocean: New responses to Pacific poems, National Library, Wellington. Photo by Celeste Fontein.

More about Long Waves of our Ocean: New responses to Pacific poems

Welcome to Chris Tse our new Poet Laureate

The National Library is delighted to celebrate National Poetry Day by announcing Chris Tse of Wellington as the New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2022-2024.

Te Pouhuaki National Librarian Rachel Esson described Chris’s appointment as recognition of “a poet leading a generational and cultural shift in the reach and appreciation of poetry in Aotearoa.”

Fellow poet Freya Daly Sadgrove says Chris “will unite and embolden the full breadth of Aotearoa’s poetry community as well as entice new audiences with his innovation. He’s a glam-rock poetry superstar with a big, gorgeous heart and he will raise the profile of Aotearoa poetry right now like no one else.”

Chinese man in coulourful jacket standing in front of a large round mirror.
Self-portrait Chris Tse. Photo provided. 

For Tse, his appointment was a thrill and an honour.

“The number 13 is a lucky number in my family, so it feels very auspicious to be named the 13th New Zealand Poet Laureate.

“Stepping into this role as a queer, Asian writer is an incredible and life-changing opportunity. I’m thrilled and honoured to be following in the footsteps of some of our literary greats.

“New Zealand’s poetry scene is thrumming with diverse and innovative voices on both the page and the stage, and I can’t wait to use my tenure as Poet Laureate to help people discover the riches of this scene.”

Congratulations Chris we look forward to hearing more from you.

Why Hollywood won’t cast poets in films anymore

1. There are public reasons and there are private reasons.

2. The public reasons are toothless exaggerations

3. In private, we recount the times we’ve been made to feel damaged.

4. The night writes its power ballads behind closed doors.

5. We have dressed our wounds with the sins of our tormentors.

6. When we were happy, we filled our suitcases with fresh bread.

7. Now that we are filled with rage we choke our duck ponds with dry crusts.

8. There was a time when the colour of a nightclub brawl did not exist.

9. Nowadays, a bookstore drive-by shooting no longer elicits social media outrage.

10. We must acknowledge that there are no more wars left to cry over.

11. Except for the wars we wage against ourselves, which we refuse to acknowledge.

12. We carved our names into every building to remind ourselves never to return.

13. You can dance for a destination, but you will never get there in one piece.

14. Careers based on public humiliation are no longer worth curating.

15. At no point have we accepted responsibility for casting the first stone.

16. If it’s all lies, we must pretend not to notice.

17. If it’s all truth, we must pretend not to care.

18. Either way, it’s meant to hurt.

19. It’s meant to make you want to leave your husband for a tax accountant.

20. It’s the way we step out of a burning theatre as if nothing’s wrong.

21. As if the smoke in our eyes is a lover’s smile caught in sunlight.

22. An uncontrollable fire is perfectly fine, given the state of the world.

23. Then why do I feel so angry?

24. Are you angry?

25. I’m angry.

— Chris Tse

Poster announceing Chris Tse as new Poet Laureate, includes a poem called ‘Chris Tse and  his imaginary band’ and biographical information about Chris which is available on the Poet Laureate blog.
Poster announcing Chris Tse as the new Poet Laureate.
Thank you to Phantom Billstickers for the poster.

Whale Psalm

The whale, says Jonah, is the black night filled with terrible screams.
The whale is missiles that winnow the grain from the wheatfields.
The whale is the city with bombed-out basements and burning high-rises.
The whale is the country, bogged down in booby-traps and wreckage of tanks.
The whale shoulders the load, a tower of coffins.
The whale is village-fiddlers tuning up a death march.
The whale is soldiers shouting their poems in the ruins.
The whale is a prayer on the lips of children.
The whale is liberty pecked at by birds of prey.
The whale is the enemy, with its taboos, its vanity and its ignorance.
The whale is life incarnate and a desperation to survive.
The whale is the weight of creation stranded on the tipping point.
The whale is always further away than first thought, but inescapable.
The whale wants to save us.
The whale wants to win the war.
The whale turns the spotlight on the whale-hunters and the war-generals.
The whale has climbed the diving board above the dried-up sacred fountain.
The whale must dive into the circus barrel, and there is no way out.

— David Eggleton

Mostly Black

Before, as it was, it was mostly black,
dark beaks, polished talons, feathers, a black
regime drenched in the melancholy black
of rains that took tides further towards black.
From hinges of sunlight hung blocks of black,
and risen humps of islands were matt black.
Cinders sailed from bush burn-offs, carbon black.
Beads on antimacassars gleamed jet black.
Through pine's silent groves possum eyes shone black.
Above tar-seal a melted rainbow turned black.
At disintegration of monolith black,
green, all that blue can be, then back to black.
Green of pounamu lost under lake's black.
Blackout's lickerish taste, blood-pudding black,
and midnight mushrooms gathered from deep black.
Tattoos drawn with bent nib and homemade black.
Batman's mask, a dull sheen of cue ball black.
The primeval redacted, placed in black
trash bags, or else turned out as burnt bone black.
Pull on the wool singlet of shearer's black,
for blacker than black is New Zealand black,
null and void black, ocean black, all black.
In Te Pō's night realm, from Te Kore's black,
under the stars spreads the splendour of black.

— David Eggleton

Te-Ara-a-Parāoa, Path of the Sperm Whale

Aotearoa's white peaks spyhop above waves,
seeking albatross worlds of mislaid moons.
Screeching kākā skim fast through tree-tops.
Parāoa breaches in a frost-smoke chrysalis.
Iwi on the shore perform haka of welcome.
Drizzle dances on the head of the whale.
Hoisted up out of water, blowing a guffaw,
blunt headlands slap and wallow in their turn.
A living wall slides past, gentle-eyed, vast.
Luminous planktons glow in dark ocean;
neon flying squid flash through salty air.
Silvery-bubbled, ripple-driven, Parāoa
tilts her tail-flukes, keels and plunges:
guiding her calf down Kaikōura Canyon.
Bob of a fur seal pup snouts through
seaweed wrack, in the surf's long swell.
A breeze licks over spun gobbets of foam.
A green tendril climbs sunwards in a spiral

— David Eggleton