Testing for a house style

Had to face up to it sooner or later: if I want to generalize about the work produced in a creative writing program, I have to get quantitative. So I identified, read, reread, and cross-referenced eleven books—all the first collections I know by poets who have received the Master in Arts in Creative Writing from the IIML. Here are some generalizations*:

My sense that these poets are interested in transnational exchange, the play of languages: confirmed. That the range of styles/ forms is narrower than in the field of contemporary poetry at large: yes. (These poets write quite differently from one another, yet free verse is dominant, prose poetry common, inherited forms nearly nonexistent.) The often-heard characterization of Wellington poetry as domestic: partly true, but domestic does not equal safe for the best of these books. Home can be a war zone. Ironic: not really. Some poems are oblique or witty, others devastatingly open—the variety of tones and moods is dramatic.

I do think some books are much better than others, but if you want to know which you have to take me out for a drink and confirm that you’re not wearing a wire.


  1. Geographical: cities and towns in Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, North America, and the Pacific.
  2. Languages other than English: Dutch, French, German, Greek, Māori, Sāmoan, Swahili.
  3. Literary allusions and borrowings (a selection): the Bible, the Rubai’yat, The Upanishads, Māori waiata, Baxter, Blake, Heaney, Keats, Longfellow, Mansfield, Olds, Ovid, Plath, Sappho, Shakespeare. High quotient of 19th and 20th century writers in English.  
  4. Popular culture allusions, historical and contemporary: the All Blacks, Helen Clark, The Clash, Bing Crosby, Bob Dylan, Gore-Tex, Mata Hari, Hoovermatic, Harry Houdini, La-Z-Boy, Lucky Strikes, New World Market, Qantas, Return to Paradise, River Phoenix, Sir Edmund Hillary, sudoku, The Tatler, texting, Times New Roman, Woman’s Day magazine. Heavy reference to WWI era in Jenner and to mid-century New Zealand life in Amas. Contemporary pop culture references densest in Avia and Baker (music).


  1. Most are mostly free verse. There is some rhyme (see Smaill especially); many poems are arranged into symmetrical-looking stanzas. Fell includes an acrostic and Avia uses litany. Fell and Andrews include fourteen-liners that allude to sonnets. I found no poem using a regular pattern of rhyme and meter.
  2. Many use free verse in experimental ways. Jenner and Tse manipulate the visual element of spacing. Fell’s book begins with a mock-interview. Avia, Jenner, and Livesey use lists to generate form. 
  3. The most common variation is the prose poem, in many flavors: narrative, lyric-associative, historical, autobiographical, epistolary. Only Smaill’s book contains no prose poetry.
  4. Most poems use conventional grammar and standard punctuation: they are comprised of intelligible sentences, not fragments in unresolved relation to one another. Sometimes spacing and lineation substitute for punctuation. Avia’s poems often use dialect spelling and Sāmoan words but the underlying syntax is clear. Baker and Jenner deploy fragmentary language and a collage aesthetic most often.
  5. Several books include long poems and sequences. I’d call Jenner’s book a long poem.


  1. Immigration and travel are significant themes in most (not so much Amas, Wallace).
  2. Corresponding point: Baker and Avia produce bilingual poems, but there are other kinds of linguistic shiftiness here: dialogue, scraps of song or news, the play of multiple voices.
  3. Many books emphasize family and domestic spaces but those spaces are often dangerous or imperilled, invaded, under siege (Andrews, Amas, Avia, Dobson, Fell).
  4. Piles of food everywhere: samosas, Spam, grapefruit, bacon, wild lettuce, manuka honey, tea, black pudding, Tui beer, rice wine, figs, mutton pie, chanterelles, ginger biscuits, mangoes, gin, coconuts, Big Macs, and more. But then, I’m hungry today.

 *The books published do not necessarily constitute a representative sample of the work generated by IIML poetry students, for a range of reasons. Here are the books I read (I’m including Tse’s chapbook-length selection). I would be grateful to hear about mistakes and omissions!

Michele Amas, After the Dance (VUP 2006); Angela Andrews, Echolocation (VUP 2007); Hinemoana Baker, Mātui/ Needle (Perceval and VUP 2004); AUP New Poets 4, Chris Tse’s “Sing Joe” (2011); Tusiata Avia, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (VUP 2004); Emily Dobson, A Box of Bees (VUP 2005); Cliff Fell, The Adulterer’s Bible (VUP 2005); Lynn Jenner, Dear Sweet Harry (AUP 2010); Anna Livesey, Good Luck (VUP 2003); Anna Smaill, The Violinist in Spring (VUP 2005); Louise Wallace, Since June (VUP 2009).

4 responses to “Testing for a house style”

  1. Thanks to Fergus, I have now read three more books from this cohort: The Propaganda Poster Girl by Amy Brown, Secret Heart by Airini Beautrais, and Ithaca Island Bay Leaves by Vana Manasiadis. They fit into my argument pretty well but I do have to change one point. Beautrais’ book is entirely prose poetry and Brown includes several sestinas and villanelles and a pantoum–they’re mostly heterometric but they definitely qualify as takes on those forms. Inherited forms do occur in this 14-book grouping after all; they’re just rare.


  2. Lesley, this was an interesting read. I have a couple of comments. The first is a methodological point relating to the idea of generalisation, which you say is a reason for turning quantitative. What you have here , if you did look at all the first books, which I havent checked, is a descriptive survey of the entire published first books of poetry from graduates of the IIML M.A.
    That would not give you any capacity to generalise to anything other than these books. You could not generalise to the poetry writing of all IIML M.A. graduates, for instance.
    Your conclusions also rely on the accuracy of your descriptions. For example, have you corrrectly identified all the forms used? I think it would be useful to have some way of checking this before firming up the form conclusion.

    The reason I have said these things is that I have a ‘thing’ about the dominance of quantitative research in the hierarchy of research methods, which leads lots of people to seek to apply quantitative methods where they dont fit the intent of the research. I think your work is analytical and descriptive rather than quantitative. ( You may well disagree with this.) I also think that analytical and descriptive is entirely appropriate for this exercise. But it will not permit generalisation from work examined to any universe of work.

    The second comment is much more writerly. I went away and thought a lot about what you had ‘found’ in common amomgst these books of poetry. I asked myself whether i was aware of any over-arching or underlying similarities in these books. The answer I came up with is that they all exist. I think one thing they have in common is that the writers have all had the confidence to make these poems and send them out into the world. Others might disagree with this, and I would love to hear if they do, but I think a common element in the graduates of the M.A. might be that they feel they have a mandate to write and they show this by writing. Not just in published work, but over decades and in various forms.

    I appreciated being given a prompt to think these things.


  3. Kia ora Lesley thanx for great day yesterday. Will be having another go at the torture rima!! All da best for your travel back to US. Lovely meeting you, Gillian


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