Poets reveal their secrets

Majella Cullinane. Photo: supplied
Majella Cullinane. Photo: supplied

Two Dunedin poets have won the top two places in the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize 2017. Rebecca Fox asks them what inspired their work.

Port Chalmers writer Majella Cullinane won the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Competition with her poem Road to Murdering Beach. She receives $500 plus a one week stay at the Caselberg House in Broad Bay.

Q What was the inspiration for your winning poem?

I was house-sitting a friend's place (Jackie Ballantyne) in Port Chalmers and we got talking about local beaches and she asked if I'd been to Murdering Beach (Whareakeake). I said I hadn't, and after looking into the history of the place I visited with my partner, Andrew, and our son, Robbie.

Q Where did you write it?

I wrote it in Port. I remember jotting down a few notes about the place when I got home and looking up more historical sources related to the altercation between Maori and Pakeha in 1817.

Q What does winning the prize mean to you?

It means an awful lot to have my work appreciated by a judge like Riemke Ensing whose poetry I really appreciate. I have great respect for the work the Caselberg Trust do for the arts in Dunedin, and am really looking forward to my stay in Broad Bay next year. The fact that two former Burns fellows (Sue Wootton and Brian Turner) have also won the Caselberg prize, well, it feels like a real honour to add my name to the list.

Q How long have you been writing poetry?

Since I was about 14.

Q Why write poetry?

Poetry permits access to a quieter, more reflective side of my personality. I like the careful craft and rhythm of it, how it takes time, and how, for me at least, it facilitates a slower, more meditative perspective of looking at the world.

Q What's it like to read your poetry to a live audience?

A little nerve-racking to be honest. I try to remind myself to read slowly and carefully.

Q You are on an Auckland Writers Residency?

I'm at the TSB Arts Centre/Pah Homestead in Auckland for three months. I've been working on the proofs of my first novel, which will be published next year, and also some short stories.

Road To Murdering Beach

I’ll let you in on something —
I’ve never dreamt of being a bird,
see only the shape of myself plunging through water,
a fish flecking its tail, fins stroking waves
in the charcoal sky of dusk beneath the sea.
Nights I have dreamt this, and come up to breathe
in a room curtained in darkness. By a window

I have watched headlights stream down the road,
sunlight hide behind the old villa next to us,
heard the pledge of autumn in the sigh of another leaf
the wind sashay the green orange pines on the hill,
and in the skitter of grey-pink clouds polishing waves
I remember what you said to me once —
there are few who can feel the shadow
of the murdered behind them at twilight,
can hear the swing of hatchets, the thrust of spears
the last murmurs of the dead. There are others
who listen hard, like a child holding a conch shell
to their ear, but hear only the tide’s exhalation,
the plaintive kahu, the flap glide flap of wings.

— Majella Cullinane


Ruth Arnison. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Ruth Arnison. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Dunedin author Ruth Arnison, from Poems in the Waiting Room, is runner-up with Finding Billy Collins in the fiction shelves. She receives $250.

Q What was the inspiration for your winning poem?

I found one of Billy Collins' poetry books amongst the fiction shelves at a bookshop so, I'm an ex-librarian, I just had to pick him up and take him to the poetry section. I began the poem with no idea where it would lead and then I found all of Billy's book titles were vying for inclusion in the poem.

I've been a long-time admirer of Billy's poems; they're very accessible with slight tongue in cheek humour which appeals to me.

Q When did you write it?

I wrote it in 2014, I can't remember where. It may have been at home or while on holiday. I tend to write more when I'm away from home. It was rejected several times but I kept persisting as I thought it was OK.

Q How do you go about bringing humour into poetry?

I want poetry to be accessible and find humour can take away that, poetry, oh yeah, boring, we had to study it at school mentality. I tend to find a lighter side to any situation and allow it to filter through without being disrespectful. I often write poems with a twist of humour at the end.

Q What does winning the prize mean to you?

Winning the prize was a huge surprise. It brought with it several moments of apprehension, well several days really if I'm honest. I knew as a prizewinner I would be required to read my poem and I find public readings very difficult ... but I managed to swallow my nervousness and spit the poem out.

Q How long have you been writing poetry?

I've written poetry off and on all my life. I stopped writing when I was busy with babies, toddlers and then full-time work. The last five years I've been working part-time which has been brilliant - it's given me more space for writing and other projects.

Q Why write poetry?

Poetry is a safe haven for me - a place I can dump anger, sorrows, frustrations, happiness and musings without anyone getting hurt!

I've written several short stories and I enjoy writing haiku. I love playing with words and trying to express myself in the shortest, tightest, most concise way possible.

Q What's it like to read your poetry to a live audience?

Absolutely terrifying.

Q What are you working on now?

I'm tidying up a suite of poems I wrote about my daughter, Jenny, she died in 1987. A friend in Auckland used them with a group of his GP Registrars and said they were a wonderful opening to a discussion about understanding patients' experience and how to break bad news. I'm hoping to find a home for them in 2018. I'm also keen to do more collaborative work with artists and perhaps musicians.

Finding Billy Collins in the fiction shelves

He was leaning
against Jackie Collins with
Tamara Cohen peeping over his shoulder.
I whipped him
off the shelf hissing,
you’ve taken Aimless Love too far.
There’s no point
in going ballistic, said the assistant,
we’ve always had trouble with poetry.
Billy, I said,
shelving him next to Emily, you’ve got to
stop this sailing alone around the room.
I think he got my message.
Next week he was still there,
Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.

— Ruth Arnison


Highly commended

Four poets received a highly commended from judge Riemke Ensing. They were:

Carolyn McCurdie (Dunedin), Bridge

Sarah Grout (Auckland/London), Lumb Bank

Ruth Hanover (Christchurch) Notes from a refugee

Susan Howard (Warkworth) Cambodia (a deconstructed country)

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