The author photo

A few months ago my friend and photographer Matt Bialostocki took the author photo for my second book. I trust Matt. He’s a good photographer and a reader of my poetry so I knew he wouldn’t make me look too pretty. This seems a funny thing to want, to not look pretty, when I spend what is probably too much of my time (smoothing clothes, checking teeth, concealing blemishes and greys) in that attempt.

Looking back on what I wrote about the photo for my first book I was interested in looking ‘serene,’ as though those six years of hard slog to get the book written and published hadn’t actually happened. I think that’s what women do sometimes. We hide the struggle. There’s probably a reason why my second collection ended up being called WORK, and such a short title required a ridiculous number of emails between myself, the book’s editor Amy Brown, and publisher Chloe Lane. But that’s it — even the title took work, as did raising my kid while writing the book, and finishing my PhD. I still feel an ache in my chest when I think about it all. My first author photo ended up being confrontational, or as my publisher said, ‘A bit rock chick.’ In other words, perfect.

author photo

Photograph by Duncan Forbes.

The poems in WORK are all about work. The emotional kind; the dedication the characters have to their vocations. The people in my poems have come through some event and are working their way back to normal. Many of the poems are about womanhood and what that can look like: motherhood, loverhood, intellectualism, gender — the brawl of it all. I wanted a photo that would not compromise any of this.

Novelist Amanda Filipacchi wrote a piece recently about her author photo called ‘How to Pose Like a Man.’ Of preparing for her photoshoot she said, ‘I flipped through a book of Ms. Ettlinger’s photos to get a sense of how authors typically dressed for their portraits. I made a startling discovery: The male and female authors posed differently. The men looked simpler, more straightforward. The women looked dreamy, often gazing off into the distance. Their limbs were sometimes entwined, like vines…I decided that I wanted to pose like a man.’


Novelist Amanda Filipacchi. Photo by Marion Ettlinger.

I loved this article, in part because it sparked conversation and camaraderie on Twitter between female writers. The thing is, Filipacchi is posing like a man, but she’s also posing like a woman. The article reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend years ago. She said she avoided appearing feminine at work because she wanted to be taken seriously. I also want to be taken seriously, but to so without diminishing myself. I want to be unapologetically feminine and also be seen as having something important to say. I think about my contemporaries, the female authors that inspire me with their writing and also their determination and complex inhabiting of the world. There are so many – but here’s four.

Anna Smaill

Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes.

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle on the back cover of her collection, Autobiography of a Marguerite

Joan Fleming, author of Failed Love Poems

Joan Fleming, author of Failed Love Poems and The Same as Yes. Photo by Kate van der Drift.

Morgan Bach, author of Some of Us Eat the Seeds. Photo by Grand Maiden.

The final photo was one that Matt shot between poses. We were standing on my deck which is right beside the trampoline and sandpit. Our property rambles down into a council reserve, so the photograph looks as though I’m standing in the bush. I remember I was tired that day, and a little rumpled and self-conscious. The book wasn’t entirely finished, but I felt a new surety about the poems I’d been writing. Matt caught me off guard — mid-gesture, my attention drawn by mess or noise, or undone tasks, or, and this is what I’d like to think, by how big and mighty it felt to be writing the book, how superbly terrifying.


WORK Book Launch!

WORK_full cover

You are warmly invited to join Hue & Cry Press and Sarah Jane Barnett in launching WORK.

Thursday 22 October at 5.30pm, reading 6-6.15pm.
Vic Books, Victoria University, 1 Kelburn Parade, Wellington.
All welcome!

In these six long poems Sarah Jane Barnett explores how people fight for a normal life. Set in Ethiopia, Paris, Norway, and New Zealand these astonishing poems take you into the lives of others—a grieving man leaves Ethiopia at the end of the civil war; a polyamorous couple have a child; a woman hunts a black bear on a New Zealand sheep station. Original and spellbinding, these poems walk the line between poetry and fiction.

During the launch Sarah will read from ‘Ghosts,’ a speculative poem set in Norway’s northernmost town, Svalbard. The poem includes dialogue between the characters Diane and Fowler, who will be read by Wellington writers Therese Lloyd and Matt Bialostocki. Get ready for a performance!

Read an excerpt of ‘Addis Ababa’ on this website. 
Read an excerpt of ‘The Woman who Married a Bear’ on Up Country.
If you can’t make the launch, WORK can be pre-ordered from Hue & Cry Press store.

Tuesday Poem: ‘Addis Ababa’ from WORK


This excerpt is from ‘Addis Ababa,’ which is one of six long poems in my forthcoming collection, WORK. The poem is about a man who is trying to rebuild his life after his wife dies in the final skirmish of the Ethiopian Civil War. It first appeared in Sport 43, and on RNZ reviewer Harry Ricketts called it the standout poem of the issue.’ I actually made one of those excited half-squeals, the embarrassing kind you can’t keep in. Anyway, another excerpt from WORK was on Up Country last week (along with a little piece I wrote about Canadian moose being released in Fiordland in the early 1900s).

WORK will be released on Thursday 22 October. EXCITING launch details to come!

Tuesday Poem: ‘Mason’ by Scott Lindsay


I like to walk in these hills.
I enjoy the sense of isolation,
as if I really could be
the only person
for miles around.

The landscape is rugged here,
tufts of thin grass clumped around
rocks, stones, boulders.
Red flowers bloom in stark contrast
to the browns and muted greens of
the other alpine plants.

Should they make me less lonely?
These flowers, these symbols
of life, and continuity?
Should they make me rejoice
in the beauty of life,
and of nature?

I held you for a brief moment.
You were limp in my hands,
your arms and legs splayed wide
like a living rag-doll.
Ragged breathing.
Tiny gasps of air.

The labour had taken days,
my wife was exhausted,
and I couldn’t stay awake for long.
And when my eyes opened once more
you were gone.

I look from the blooms to the town below,
curls of smoke rising skyward from chimneys,
warm golden light
shining from windows, my heart
across gardens now turning deep blue,
the fading light of day.

I was so moved when I read Scott’s poem, and spent some extra time writing my feedback to him, basically because I couldn’t help myself. There’s a weight that comes when responding to very personal poems – those of love and grief, or most often both. How do I tell someone to cut lines about their loss because they’re too clunky or abstract? I didn’t have to do much of that with ‘Mason’ and reading it out loud to a friend last night, it still affects me. It makes me sad and thankful, and it also makes think, this is why I teach creative writing.

This is what Scott sent me for his bio: Scott has a wonderful wife and three amazing daughters. He also had a son briefly, and this event served as the inspiration for his poem ‘Mason’. Even though this was a traumatic time, he learned a lot about love and family. If you, or someone you love, ever have to face similar adversity in your life, please reach out for help as soon as you can. The pain is real and you don’t have to suffer by yourself. No one is alone in dark times like these, even though it certainly feels like you might be.

I’ve posted two other poems by 2015 students: ‘Jam Jar’ by Mary Fisher, and ‘My Mother in the Kitchen’ by Joel Pearson.

Tuesday Poem: ‘My Mother in the Kitchen’ by Joel Pearson

My Mother in the Kitchen

My mother is
banging and making noise
in the kitchen.
With bowls and cutlery,
searching with
needless clatter.
Her handkerchief
tucked at the ready
up the cuff
of her best black suit.

In the newspaper
there are two women–
twice my mother’s age–
campaigning to have
headstones propped back up
after they toppled over
in the earthquake.

are the afterlife’s kitchens.
The women are
banging around in it.
Making the bed.
Deadheading the roses.
My mother searches
for something real
amongst the tupperware.
Trying to rip back up
that the earth lulled
into lying down.

Joel Pearson is a Massey University student living in Christchurch. His major is English and he hopes to continue studying creative writing. One of his short stories appeared in Takahe 81, but he also writes poetry. This poem was written for Creative Writing 139.123and came together after Joel read an article in the newspaper about the earthquakes, and also from being annoyed by his mother banging around in the kitchen.

This is a marvelous poem about the way we distract ourselves from grief. I admire Joel’s ability to balance humour with simple and poignant imagery such as the mother’s ‘handkerchief / tucked at the ready / up the cuff / of her best black suit’. If you want to read more poems by Massey students I posted one last week.

Tuesday Poem: ‘Jam Jar’ by Mary Fisher

Jam Jar

I’m wilting in the darkening kitchen
When my younger brother
Arrives to my grappling,
Ridges of agar jar rubbing
Fingerprints from my skin.

I’ve poured hot water around the rim,
Metal bands expand, steam melting upwards.
I’ve tried the tea towel grip.
My hands simply slide, leaving
Squeaking glass and solid lid.

As he slips in, pale-faced from the cold
I stand straight and sweep rogue,
Sticky stripes of hair aside.
His squint rakes my crumbling attempt
To keep the jar behind, benched.

Floppy curls, beginnings of whiskers.
When did he become the taller one?
I say, ‘Don’t worry’.
But his long arms already loop around
My torso, a slow warming like rays of morning sun.

And while I sink into his limby cocoon,
His fingers find the flaws
In the jar I’ve been wrestling over,
Longer than a fearless sister should.

He pops the cap with slender hands.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to post poems by my students. Massey University doesn’t (yet) have an online journal like Turbine or 4th Floor, and it seems unfair that these poems are not read beyond my dining room table. These poems are the ones that make me think it’s a blurry line between student and teacher.

The first poem is by Mary Fisher, a part-time Massey student studying towards a BA in psychology alongside representing New Zealand in swimming. She enjoyed creative writing at high school and wrote this poem as part of 139.123, which for her was an elective paper. Mary likes cooking and says there is a parallel between her and literal jam jars as well as an object which could represent aspects of identity.