Extract from Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook 2024


An extract from the upcoming book Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook 2024, edited by Tracey Slaughter: 


Writing from the red house

The day I wrote my first poem I was 12 and I didn’t know what I’d done. I was living in a house I hated, with a man at the head, a place of hurt. That man had just kicked my sibling into the street and I was left behind in shock, and I hid and spat something onto floral stationery meant for thank-you letters to long-distance ancestors who had no idea about the hellish house on the hill where I felt so unsafe.

The poem came out bad, fast, hot, double vision, carved hard onto the page. It was something between dog bark and lullaby, between bird call and bared teeth. I must have been trying to both kick back and console myself, to rock myself and roar. I had zero models except shitty pop songs and musty old classics in a mouldy pocket-size book of rhyming poems (ironically, lifted from that man’s stash, not far from where his shotgun sat loaded). It was a blurred, noisy mess, but that didn’t matter: it was about wreckage, it was about choking. It was more like an exorcism than a moment of art: it was automatic, it was autonomic. It piled up images out of every disaster movie I’d seen — the sea rose up, the house turned red, all the elements blazed against it — cuts of wide-scale pain to collage over the small, dirty scene that had just happened at my door: that man’s hands, my sibling knocked onto the asphalt.

There were some facts it couldn’t hold fixed yet, in frame. But it held something, it was something, it had done something. Jerky manifesto mixed with fucked-up sob, prayer crossed with not-yet-suicide note. Whatever had left my body and rushed onto the page, it had something to do with survival. I had no muscle in that ugly house, no armour, no comeback, no voice. I couldn’t see a way not to stay and get broken, there was no other shelter. But I had a piece of paper that didn’t say 13 thank you, that didn’t stay silent, that scraped black lines across the flowery page where I was meant to whisper the sweet nothings little girls are made of. I couldn’t fight, I couldn’t flee — but I could write. And those words didn’t freeze, and they did not fawn.

We are so often detonated into poetry by our nerve ends. We flare to language when life trips our red wire. Whatever skills we acquire along the way — to direct the current, to regulate the blood jet — the why of poetry so often remains the same. We hone our craft and we learn to rein it in with the cortical, the critical — but most poets know the fuse, the force, the source is, as Colum McCann says, the ‘electricity of suffering’.

It pays, of course, not to openly declare this: the market tends to like its poets shining not bleeding, waving not drowning, chasing the commercially angled spotlight, not casting the glare back onto our scars and the system that leaves them. There’s a special kind of shame reserved for artists who risk wearing heart’s blood all over their sleeves. In the poems that poured in for this issue, though, the evidence was everywhere: there’s a breed of poet who is writing from the red house — writing for their lives, not for likes — and they are bent on taking the risk, on witnessing patterns of wounding, and taking apart the machine that put them there.


So, trigger warning: this is a book of revelations. Apocalypse lives here, and it’s not going away, and these poets aren’t apologising for facing it. The same flood, storm, flame that surged through my first-ever poem is now the permanent forecast. Our days, our islands, our skins, our seas, our skies wear the stigmata of late-stage capitalism, and these poets have no interest in concealing it. They are writing — McCann again — ‘so as to not fall silent’, because they see the ruins of silence all around us, its dead institutions, its gouged earth, its bound hands, its nullifying currency, its foul oils, its crushed species.

The point where personal emergency meets collective oppression is set alight again and again in their poems — they refuse to let the hurt be siloed, classified, diagnosed, dosed, written off. They do not cower before the structures built to quietly retraumatise us. Their work ‘hits the hazard lights’ and summons all its craft to ‘hammer and wonder and cry . . . banging the tin of disappointment/and worthlessness bringing up the spectre of future/homelessness, and poverty and sickness and all that befalls’. They know the place to expose the workings of power lies deep within us, where it brands our tissue, twists our responses, sells our safety. This is the nexus that the system is so vastly invested in us not seeing, the flashpoint that poetry is so inextricably wired to force out into unforgiving radical light. ‘[H]ow would yous rate the pain?’ asks the opening piece, and the answer resounds: ‘sistine’.

But this comes at a cost. And reading this year’s poems, I felt that weight, that toll. If the imagery of end-days was ever-present, so too was the echo of how much our poets pay to speak it. It can be a tough haul from our first poem to our last one, and after long-term exposure to the system we are so often eroded into poetry, hollowed, ground-down, exhausted into it — poem after poem that came in this year sounded voiced from ‘the end of the rope’, uttered ‘right up against this precipice’, hanging on by ‘a whimper blight a slow sapping’, a statement of precarity, struggling to preserve in the lines the frailest shred of hope.

There is nothing to be gained by not calling it: one prevailing theme this year was suicide. We all know we are losing poets. Not so long ago, we lost Schaeffer Lemalu. This year we lost Paula Harris. The witness of how deep those losses run — and how much we desperately need to treasure, to nurture our poetic community to guard against bearing any more — was undeniable. Connection, which is poetry’s tender, is more crucial now than it has ever been.

So when I inevitably waver in writing this, and want to score it through with a backlash of triggered red lines, I hold on to a message from this volume’s featured poet Carin Smeaton: ‘I’m tired of living life as though we’re walking on broken glass and might get cut by the peoples who are probably the ones who caused the pain anyway.’ And I watch late-night footage of Sinéad O’Connor, who looks punk and wounded, and mutinous and starved, and worshipful and like she’s had the shit kicked out of her, saying artists are meant to be messed-up vessels, willing to lay everything they have on the line so the system is made to see its pain, and I think of Paula, and what this world does to its protest singers.

And I read the book that another poet links to me, Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, which reminds me that ‘to feel deeply, or to admit to feeling deeply’ is so often treated as ‘inadmissible’ because it has everything to do with ‘money (poverty) or violence (how money and bodies meet)’, and the ‘pity, guilt, and contempt’ it provokes are themselves ‘feelings of power . . . the emotional indulgences of those with power or those who seek it’.

And I listen to a student who happens to bring into my classroom words from Audre Lorde I first heard long ago but need to rehear: ‘When we are silent / we are still afraid. / So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.’ And I tell the girl who wrote that first poem — on the days when she still feels as though she’s living in a house she hates, with an unsafe man at the head, with her siblings still getting kicked into the street, a place of hurt, climate-destroying, near unsurvivable — that she has a community around her now, to write with, to strive for, to fight on beside.


And more than anything I think of how, late last year, I stood on a stage performing one of Paula’s poems — because Paula, along with a host of other poets, was helping us to salvage a journal that was red-lining — and how later in that same show I played a mangled seabird trapped in a box and then an inmate telling of the prison grid that locked them into the emptiness.

And out of her poem’s final words — which were ‘nothing. / it means nothing. / nothing’ — poured all the impossible love we struggle to protect against those perpetual dead ends.

And if this year I need to stand up and read Paula’s poem when we launch this issue — which sounds the word ‘run’ in a storm aimed straight from her body 89 devastating times — I will. For her.


. . .


Aunties talk Pukekohe by Carin Smeaton

yr calling in to sort the whenua & calm the cousins while yr at it u
travel all the ways from whangārei aunties swooping in like kahu
from a waking sky

u weaves in & out of matua’s shelves just how tāne does breaking
code n kete in a tropical low u says who’s this white guy & wtf does he

u knew that nen we all knew her she never recoverd they really put
the boot in we remember Pukekohe with its fukd up colour bars

cinema hellscape stores porn lovin bishops pukekohe with its
headless angels grieving schools nothing 2 see here fukboys mayors
of mediocracy

pukekohe the kahu in the sky sees u as do i (the ancient trees of tāne)
we all knows what u r & we all kno wat u did  ae

we knows where u live

we was only around for yr market gardens sustenance n five spice life
but even we left after that we never went back eh whāea survival of
tha aunties

once upon a time u says we wāhine had mana and we was treatd as
such but not now eh pukekohe fuk u we only want land bk we jus
want our mokos to feel welcome


. . .


The Alchemist vs Posie Parker by Carin Smeaton

auntie’s an Alchemist  a Shapeshifter
A good lil arawa girl gifted but  auee
Lucky that day she weren’t at the hui
when the west wind blew into the wharenui
With their big flash shoes swayin hips in front
of our elders all them muscle mens
Yea bitch lucky auntie weren’t present
she woulda ripped off dem ’lashes
thrown em out wit tha red stilettos Out
u blow bye bye bitches i mean fuk that shit
manipulating kawa twisting tikanga
biological or not Don’t matter the storm
b like the kuis theyre ovr 80 barefoot n seein
hi-fem n butches our nens Own us
They own our shoes our soul our eyes n tides
so out u flyy theyr the whenua we breathe
ha! it’s amaze u was ever allowd in


. . .


An interview with Carin Smeaton

Lives strung between powerlines and wheelie bins, hellscape Westfields and emergency wards: the speakers in Carin Smeaton’s poems ‘touch yr blood’ and take oppression apart with ‘a fierce hook’. Their stories track through urban spaces that resonate with capitalist hurt, hard-edged voices holding ‘spark to skin knife to vitals’. Her razor-cut lines deliver sharp critique of ‘the bankrs in the gold seats’, throwing a world of trickle-down privation into stark relief, as characters up to their necks in minimum-wage life talk baseline truths, a chorus of the blunt and wasted, gutted and resilient. In brutal conversation with ‘trauma from da present’, with an unflinching take on its colonial roots, Smeaton’s poetry lights up the ecosystems of the city, zooming in on those who live in its chokehold.

TS: I don’t think anyone could read your work and not be reminded that the voice is a muscle, a thing of motion and action, of sinew and force. It’s one of the things I’ve found so gripping about your writing since I first encountered it — how voice in your work takes us ‘straight down the sternum’ of your speakers into the energy of character, right into the heat and beat and gritted teeth of raw full-frontal speech. It comes across as a bone-deep directness in talk, no frills, hard-edged, that has everything to say about your characters’ lives. How much did this voice just rise from your gut and how much have you had to work to get it on the page?

E te whānau, tēnā koutou katoa.

Nei te mihi, nei te aroha <3 Ko Kurahaupō te waka, ko Tararua te maunga, ko Muaūpoko rātou ko Safune, ko Hūrai ōku iwi, ko Tāmaki Makaurau tōku tūrangawaewae, ko Kazma rāua ko Yuga ōku tamariki, ko Carin Smeaton taku ingoa. Tēnā koutou, tēnā tātou katoa.

Kia ora Trace, thanks for featuring my mahi in Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook 2024. I feel really honoured because you have always been one of my favourite writers and editors. The damaged, brave voices in your narratives really inspired me to write more from the fire in my belly. In spirit, if you were a singer-songwriter you could be Sinéad O’Connor — and true, I totally agree with you about the gut — that our voice comes from some kind of sub-layer of the soul, memory (via the sternum!) and the land. It’s a relief to be able to use (exorcise) this demon (trauma) in my creative work. Good therapy!

TS: Cityscapes — in all their concrete shine, their gridlock neon — seem core to your poetry, too; your characters feel grown from an urban ground-zero that’s packed with industrial gullies, jammed with deadend jobs, studded with motorway stars. How much of your poetry is inseparable from Tāmaki Makaurau, as your tūrangawaewae, your turf?

I don’t think I could write outside Tāmaki Makaurau. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever have! Maybe I need to get out of Auckland to see! Auckland’s a hostile city actually. I mean, I don’t know any cyclist who’s not been hit by a bus or an SUV. You got to be pretty stubborn and resourceful to kick around in this town. Bus stops in the city can be pretty dodge. Post-lockdown Auckland feels the edge even more perhaps. I try to walk everywhere no matter the weather (rain or plague). Auckland’s got the most amazing rainbows. I don’t get catcalled anymore, so that’s nice. Like other Aucklanders who walk, I suppose I get the time to sense the spiritual and ethereal in places. And the beauty.


. . .


Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook 2024 ships 14 March. Order here.