Robert Burns Poetry Competition 2023

Poet Robert Burns. Image: Toitū Otago Settlers Museum
Poet Robert Burns. Image: Toitū Otago Settlers Museum

It was an honour and “extreme fun” to judge the Dunedin Robert Burns Poetry Competition, judge poet, writer and editor Kirstie McKinnon says.

Alongside poet, playwright and director Jonathan Cweorth, she judged the poetry blind and looked for poetry that “spring-boarded” from Robbie’s words and life and was unique in its form, evolutions of themes and musicality.

There were 21 entries in the Published Poet category, 30 in the Unpublished Poet category, and 5 in the Rap Like Robbie category for the 2023 competition. 

They described Emma Neale’s winning work in the published category as “a gorgeous, tender work about parental love and grief”.

“It’s a poem which plays with water imagery, comets and sunlight, it’s musical, shimmering and vulnerable art within “the peppery-specked green paddles” of the rose’s leaves, while the poet’s mind “finned down to the till for the why of things,” McKinnon says.

Second place, Annabel Wilson’s work blended sound and imagery to create a “hypnotic, mesmeric picture-rhythm”.

“The poem uses repetition skilfully, building our sense of awe.”

The third place poem by Wes Lee was a thought-provoking and intriguing poem using the metaphor of mice released in a field.

In the upublished category McKinnon says they were “moved and astounded” by Alice Fairley’s poem where “in Camusfeàrna water we are immersed in beauty, caged with an otter and called to consider freedom”.

Carl Naus claimed second place, and had the judges standing on a beach with ancient stones immersed in a past that is with us now.

“Brilliant, playful form.”

And they described third place-getter Parisa Torkaman’s work as a “clever, seductive” poem from the perspective of the seduced.

• Dunedin will celebrate Robbie Burns’ birthday tonight at the Burns Night Dinner at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum. 




Emma Neale, 55, Dunedin

The Dunedin-born novelist and poet, who won the Todd New Writers’ Bursary in 2000, was the inaugural recipient of the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature (2008), and the 2012 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago, now adds winner of the Dunedin Robbie Burns Poetry Competition to the list.

“I felt like a human skittle swept off my feet by a great warm bowling ball of gratitude to the anonymous judges. I was bowled over.”

Having written poetry since she was a child to help organise her thoughts and process experiences, it was re-reading some of Robbie Burns’ famous shorter lyrics and reflecting on how he managed to capture intense human feelings in a very tightly-shaped, controlled verbal form, that encouraged her to enter.

“The shorter lyrics make me think of a well-crafted music box: palm-sized, dulcet, with deft corners and piercingly sweet or salty turns of phrase, which can give a mixed frisson of familiarity and the unexpected, even this long after their initial publication.”

Fans of Burns might be able to guess that the early drafts opened with a simple inversion of his famous line, “O my luve is like a red, red rose” - but she reworked that after some feedback. The poem is about parental or maternal love, attachment and separation and also grew out of planting a rose three or four years ago to mark her eldest son leaving home.

“The real rose shares part of his name; it’s an Abraham Darby.”


A David Austin Rose

My rose stands in for a young, fledged love
with its peach-toned ruffles

and the peppery-specked
green paddles of its leaves

that steer it steady through
the choppy wash and lap of light

as money spiders, tiny sentient comets,
glitter across it,

aphids suckle like blood-drunken fleas
at buds pink as shorn under-fleece,

and a rain-grey mouse
noses up for cover

below the billowing shawl
of one bloom’s blowsy awning.

When our first son left home
I sought out this hardy shrub-rose:

carried its cloth-swaddled roots
to the soil’s quiet crib,

whispered nonsense nothings to it
as it bowed its drowsy coral head

and seemed, if not to listen,
not to not-listen,

while my mind finned down
to till for the why of things,

winnowing for the difference
between neurons and ocelli,

consciousness and plant vision,
our selves and the world that senses us,

even if it doesn’t answer
nor understand, as I barely do,

our arrivals, departures,
the dorsal-fin shaped thorns that rise

in the under-swim of the mind
as I try to absorb, through separation’s long sting,

both the wisdom of physics
and some mystic, self-help spin

insistent, each one, that time
is a relative illusion.



2nd place

Annabel Wilson, 44, Lyttelton

A writer and teacher, Wilson wrote the poem when on a plane from Christchurch to Queenstown with friend and poet Andy Coyle while on a poetry tour for the Hellfire Anthology.

“The poem arrived for me almost fully formed. Over a few years I have tweaked the form and flow of the piece, and I often perform it at spoken word gigs.”

The work is written to be spoken aloud and enjoyed on the page as an articulation of longing for the mountains that have helped shape who Wilson is. She spent her childhood in Dunedin before moving to Wānaka before moving to Lyttelton.

“It’s about reaching out across time and space to connect with the places and people dear to me, and a kind of love song for what Cilla McQueen called this ‘green spined land’ of Te Wai Pounamu.”

Wilson was “chuffed” to hear she had placed second.

“It’s neat to have my mahi acknowledged and my poem appearing in print for the first time thanks to this accolade.”


Ka Tiritiri-o-te-Moana / The Main Divide

river channels look like kelp looks like shadows on the mountains
dinosaur spines eyes brush strokes & worry lines lines lines
river channels look like shadows look like kelp on the mountains

if we were still kids we might still think of how if we were god or giants we would stroke their
velvet sides mountain ribs & gullies river channels look like shadows look like kelp
a skiff of snow patches of light changes in tone chiaroscuro

on the mountains dinosaur spines eyes brush strokes & worry lines
if, if we could, could we stretch our fingers along their ridges

trace Raureka’s footsteps, who as the stories go, was first to cross the Southern Alps
from Hokitika to the Rakaia: a woman travelling alone

river channels look like shadows look like kelp on the mountains
river channels look like shadows look like kelp on the mountains
river channels look like shadows look like kelp on the mountains

river channels, chanelling

Ka Tiritiri-o-te-Moana
the main divide.




3rd place

Wes Lee, 57, Wellington

English born, Lee has been writing poetry “forever” and was inspired to write a piece for the competition after reading an article on scientist Konrad Lorenz’ mice coming back to run on discarded wheels, seemingly just for the pleasure of it.

“I found this image to be intoxicating in its possibilities for interpretation, and very resonant for poetry.

“On reading ‘To a Mouse’, by Robert Burns, the idea began to form for using the image of the joy of the mice as they ran on the wheel and combining it with another image that had haunted me: that of a dormouse being eaten by a wolf in hibernation.

“My latest collection (shortlisted for The Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award 2023, Otago University Press), focuses on the technique of juxtaposition: putting alternative, disparate images side by side to form new threads of meaning, and the poem naturally arose from this.”


Two Views of a Mouse

after “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns

i. A field mouse runs on a wheel for the pure joy of it*

when their keepers
took the corn bribe away
they came back, to lap
the wheel and seemed
to be doing it out of pure
And perhaps it is the echo
of Pavlov. And perhaps
they have
long memories that stretch
to Roman times
and further still.
And now this cage —
open in a field —
with the wheel is part of them.

ii. A dormouse eaten in its hibernating sleep

the wolf’s snout burrowing in —
raking it out with its paw. Did it feel a ripple?
My mother was taken in her sleep
and I often think did she feel a disturbance?
The moment before her heart gave out...
a ripple through deepness.

*In experiments conducted by the Austrian researcher, Konrad Lorenz, escaped lab mice had returned to use running wheels that he had placed in his garden: Todays-Science-Wild-Mice-Run-for-Fun.pdf 




Alice Fairley, 29,  Whangārei

I grew up in Christchurch but now I live in Whangārei.

I’ve been writing poetry for just a few months. I took a poetry paper as part of the creative writing course at NorthTec Te Pūkenga which was pretty much my first foray into writing poetry, unless you count the angsty poems I wrote as a teenager!

Poetry has been an interesting way for me to sort through my thoughts and emotions, particularly about recent happenings in my life. There’s a lot of freedom in writing poetry and it seems to bring out an honest and vulnerable part of myself.

I wanted to write something with a Scottish theme and my mind supplied me with the memory of reading Gavin Maxwell’s book, Ring of Bright Water. It’s a beautifully written story with a sad ending.

The poem can be interpreted however the reader wishes, but I wrote it thinking about the many ways we lock ourselves into situations/places/relationships that seem on the surface to be idyllic, but are in fact slowly killing us. The poem is about breaking free from such a situation.

When I found out I’d placed I was super surprised... and very happy. To have even one person enjoy my poem is a great feeling... to have someone believe it worthy of a prize is also an incredible feeling.



I recall Camusfeàrna, water
bright in the bay on the coast of Scotland
where Gavin Maxwell raised his pet otter,
plucked out of the marsh.

This act is sinister to minds like mine,
for I too was lured to the sea, content
in a salt cage, believing my wild self
would keep inside me.

Believing the marshlands would call me back —
white sun through the vault of my confinement,
my name in the air, a spell of summoning,
heard at the right time.

But that bright bay held me fast in gleaming nets
of light. I saw marshes only in dreams;
they had never stopped calling me, speaking
my name to the mist.

Camusfeàrna, a paradise, a cage,
the place where the wild otter went to die,
loved by man, tamed beyond all knowing,
tamed to meet its end.

I left the bay before I drowned,
before the fate of the otter became my own.
Now I follow the marsh lights home, my name
in the mist, my name.



2nd place

Carl Naus, 33, Dunedin

Naus, who uses poetry as an outlet for “ecological rage” or to clear “emotional phlegm”, was inspired to write “Gull” as he thinks gulls like Robbie Burns, because there is always one sitting on the head of his statue in the Octagon.

His poem is about how it is hard to know how rocks and gulls are feeling because they don’t speak English and “I don’t speak rock or gull”.

From Auckland, Naus has been writing poetry for five years on and off so was “shocked and delighted” to have placed in the competition.



Being tiny: an a empted succumbing to the unfathomed histories of stones To
learn patience from the slow shower that builds the coast Too slow to perceive (I,
for one, have never witnessed a boulder dislodging from some fate chosen strata
of the Cliff and moving under gravity’s duress to rest amongst its sisters) but it’s
effect is evident - obvious - in the functionally infinite brutal multiplicitous piling
of grey, brown, purple, ochre. And still among these - Time’s favourite children
- are the young cousins: Recently untethered pōhā still taut with life, bricks in
various states of return to rock, pieces of pieces of plastic and I. Slivers of panflashes
to these old ones and so they have no obligation to pay us any mind. With all
this undignified piling and inattention and marginalisation, and additionally the
abuse of wind and clawing of ocean, the weight of being Beach Rock is surely
crushing in a way unknown (Imagine, for example, being ground into sand over many millions of years and being surrounded by strangers) but neither can the
Rock know my mine.

Although the gulls. The gulls Are weary of my presence, shifting their feet
and calling a warning to their kin into the sodden sand, Because they’ve seen enough
of us And heard the stories of the trail of damage we leave



3rd place

Parisa Torkaman, 26, Auckland

Torkaman, who was born in Kermanshah Iran, has been writing for as long as she can remember, though mostly fiction and journalism, only getting into poetry at university.

She finds poetry lets her explore the in-between and the magic of all the intricacies in life creating something tangible.

A sinister experience that she felt needed to “leave her head” inspired her to write the piece for the Burns competition.

“Overall I would say it is based on the purity of childhood and curiosity. Trying to grapple with moral realisation and guilt. How the friend you admire becomes your God.”

Torkaman says she is flattered by the placing, which she did not expect.


I Come Over To Your House

The scent is sweet, pheromone ally, i come to you like a cat,
You stare at me in the hallway i stare at you and say
“We will not do it”

sunflower-printed and the petals are,
They wrinkle under your crotch as you cross your legs,
Side by side
Ballet feet one in the fourth position followed by a hesitant first,
sideways against the wall towards your room
“We will not do it”

Shutting out the fun sun so that it glimmers through the chestnut curtains and we live, 
in red sepia.
So let’s think of a new game,
One where we disclose the rules only at the end.

Then we play,
If it is monochrome it is not real,
Your room.
smoothen out the unmade bed,
The lawnmower hums, we are safe

But in the break, i am reminded i have paws,
and bible school.
I look to you and say,
god will not like this
you can see Him and stop.
Fur Elise echoes over the tick tock.


Highly commended

“But seas between us broad have roared: so the family story goes” by Michelle Elvy






Anna Feillet, 16, Dunedin

Poetry is Feillet’s way of “walking in someone else’s shoes” and seeing how people really feel.

From France, Feillet has been writing poetry since primary school and came up with her Burns poem late one night when she could not sleep.

“I had the sentence ‘vintage green, a bench too used’ stuck in my head; so I wrote it down in my notebook and just continued writing. A few days later I was completely stuck and didn’t have any more ideas, so I decided to put it away for a while.”

Two months later she found it again and used the competition as a reason to push through and complete the poem, which was originally supposed to be a song. Feillet also writes song lyrics but this was her first time writing “rap”.

“My poem is from the perspective of an old man who used to be a very famous music conductor and lived through music. The poem is kind of a moment in time where the old man reflects on his life and remembers how happy he used to be. Now sad and alone, it shows him coming to a conclusion and ‘retelling’ his favourite memory when he conducted his favourite piece of music.”


The Conductor

Vintage green
A bench too used
By the old silver man
Late afternoons

He left his dreams of tarnished brass,
Of soulful violins, in the past
Creating art for souls to feel
And showing his passion, raw and real

But years swelled like dark blue waves,
Immersed in his music’s warm embrace
Conducting tunes of tangy red,
He felt the licks of fire spread

From ear to ear the music bounced
Staccato notes that jumped about
Some old eyes cried
Young ones smiled
Their mouths agape in awe

Slowly, surely, the strings fade out
A piccolo steadies on
Sweet and lively, a summer breeze
Or a bird that sings at dawn

Too stunned to speak
The music ends,
And no one dares to talk
But all at once the crowd explodes
A lion growls and roars

The conductor spins around and bows
Each clap demanding more
He gives them all a wave
And begins an encore

Years of playing on repeat
His wrinkles crease his face
His wand has given up on life,
But it won’t be replaced

A man who lived a life of music
A man who lived so free
Who bathed in the applause and light
Who lived so happily

But time ran out and now he lays
A shiny gravestone, a final phase
His music lives on and always stays
A star in our hearts, in countless ways