The Robert Burns Fellowship - Previous Recipients

Becky Manawatu image

Becky Manawatu

Robert Burns Fellow 2021

Manawatu’s first novel, Auē, won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for fiction and the Hubert Church Prize for best first book of fiction at the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Auē has been compared to Keri Hulme’s Booker Award-winning The Bone People. NZ Herald reviewer Kiran Dass described it as “social realist” New Zealand fiction that deals with themes of domestic violence, gang culture, grief and fractured families, but also “a beautifully pitched and nuanced hopeful story about the power of love, friendship and family.”

Manuwatu says the Fellowship will lead to both personal and professional growth.

“I can't believe it – from little Waimangaroa Primary School, writing fairy tales and ghost stories to this. It is a dream come true and I want to use the time to learn, grow and develop some intelligence and understanding. I want to connect with my whakapapa; my marae are all in Southland – including Murihiku.

“I feel very humbled to be among such an amazing list of New Zealand writers. Plus, it feels like a great adventure, and I know my writing will benefit from an adventure.”

Central to her writing is a narrative voice, which she describes as “soothing”.

“I like arcs. I like light and dark, good versus evil. And I like plot.

“I like reading more subtle, nuanced work too – but I am attracted to writing that’s a bit saga-ish. Romance, murder, lust, heroism – all the wildness and danger most of us do not wrestle with on a usual day, I let my imagination take me there. Mittyesque, I suppose, puerile even, but I can't stop myself once I start. I am a story addict.”

Although her work has been described as ‘social reality’, Manuwatu says it is instead based on “nuggets of social reality [that are used] to make the reader believe they’re being told the truth”.

During the Fellowship tenure Manuwatu will work on Papahaua, a loose sequel to Auē.

“There are some characters there I must try and do right by. Plus, I miss them.”

She also hopes to study te reo Māori while in Otago.

Manawatu lives in Waimangaroa and is a reporter at the Westport News.

Dr John Newton image

Dr John Newton

Robert Burns Fellow 2020

Dr John Newton is a poet and literary historian.

His publications include three volumes of poetry, most recently Family Songbook, and two works of literary history, The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (2009) and Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945 (2017).

Dr Newton says he was delighted to receive the Fellowship, and is looking forward to writing the second instalment of a three-volume history of 20th Century New Zealand writing (which follows on from Hard Frost) entitled Where Exactly Are We?, covering 1946 to 1968.

“I’m grateful to have the uninterrupted time that I need to work on a big project. It’s also nice to have the vote of confidence. I’m aware that what I’m doing doesn’t have a mass audience, so it’s nice to know that someone thinks the book is worth investing in.”

Dr Newton works in various literary genres, including literary history, cultural history and poetry, and also describes himself as a “weekend musician.”

This year, in addition to his satirical verse novel Escape Path Lighting, he will publish a book about Christchurch sculptor Llew Summers who died in mid-2019.

Emily Duncan photo

Emily Duncan

Robert Burns Fellow 2019

Emily is an award-winning playwright, based in Dunedin, who first started writing for theatre in 1999.

Her recent work includes Hold Me (BATS theatre, September 2016), Shaken (2016 Wellington Short + Sweet Festival), and Fallen Angels (Young and Hungry 2017 Festival of New Theatre). She was the St Hilda’s Collegiate Inaugural Artist in Residence (2017) and in this role, she wrote the play In Our Shoes, which was shortlisted for the Adam NZ New Play Award in 2018. Eloise in the Middle (winner Playmarket Plays for the Young 2013) was to be produced at the Fortune Theatre in September 2018.

Emily says it is “wonderful” to be named as the 2019 Burns Fellow and feels honoured that her name will be added to the list of literary luminaries who have held it before.

For the Fellowship, she has three projects on the go: a playscript about Emily Siedeberg and Ethel Benjamin, commissioned by the University of Otago for its 150th celebrations; writing two follow-up seasons of the Dark Dunedin podcast, which was released in March; and, finally, she will make a departure from her playwriting to work on a book.

“People have been urging me to write this for a while, and now I’ve found my angle and the timing is right,” she says.

“It will be marvellous to have the space and security to concentrate on my work in a university environment, which will serve my proposed projects immensely.”


Rhian Gallagher photo

Rhian Gallagher

Robert Burns Fellow 2018

Rhian Gallagher’s work is a moving blend of unique perspectives and poetic craft that creates subtly haunting effects.

Her first book of poems Salt Water Creek, published in London, was shortlisted for the 2003 Forward Prize for First Collection. In New Zealand, she won a Canterbury History Foundation Award in 2007, and wrote Feeling for Daylight: The Photographs of Jack Adamson, a non-fiction biography published by the South Canterbury Museum. She won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry in 2012 for her second poetry collection, Shift.

In 2016, Gallagher collaborated with artist Lynn Taylor and Otakou Press printer-in-residence Sarah Smith to publish poems on the life and activities of Freda Du Faur (1882–1935), the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mount Cook.

She described the Burns Fellowship as an expansive, generous opportunity and a real honour.

“In terms of creative space it is like moving from the backyard to a wide open plateau. Anything could happen! The Fellowship is also an opportunity for conversation and exchange within the humanities and, in this, it exudes possibility. It doesn’t involve a relocation for me but it is a completely new mindset.”

She will primarily be writing poetry.

“One aspect of the work is focussed on the early history of the Seacliff Asylum in relation to Irish migrants. I’m looking to develop a series of letter poems.”

Photo of Craig Cliff

Craig Cliff

Robert Burns Fellow 2017

Craig Cliff’s short story collection “A Man Melting” won the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book, and his novel “The Mannequin Makers” has been translated into Romanian, with a US version forthcoming in 2017. He has also published poetry, columns, book reviews and essays, and presents at festivals and conferences about writing or his other specialty - the design of education facilities.

“Taking up the Burns Fellowship in 2017 will be the best kind of disruption for me, and an adventure for my young family. When writing my last book I spent a lot of time imagining Otago in the 19th and early 20th centuries and it's a blessing and an honour to be invited to spend a year there in the flesh, to write, but also to think, converse and explore.”

Craig will work on a novel about a location scout and a levitating saint — “another tilt at the margin between the weird and the routine, art and life, past and present.”

Go to Craig's blog.

September 2017

Last week two events prompted me to sit down and consider what I’ve done so far with the gift that is the Robert Burns Fellowship.

The first was when Rhian Gallagher was announced as next year’s Fellow — congrats Rhian! — and suddenly the countdown has begun for the date at which I must vacate my office here at the University.

Second, I was invited to say a few words about my year to date at a meeting of the Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature Collaboration Group.

So I started to jot a few notes down. Fortunately, I revived my old blog at the start of the residency and have been posting fortnightly updates, as I know how sieve-like my memory can be, especially when I’m in the midst of writing a novel.

Speaking of the novel, that’s my main project. The biggest time sink. The thing I said I’d write in my application for the Fellowship. The thing I am writing, though I’m going to have to stay keyed in to meet my goal of at least finishing the first draft before I leave Dunedin.

Here’s the elevator pitch for the novel as it currently stands:

A kiwi filmmaker whose move to Hollywood hasn't gone swimmingly winds up scouting locations for a much more successful director's biopic of San Giuseppe da Copertino, a 17th century levitating Franciscan friar.

I’d started the novel in 2015, didn’t touch it (or any other fiction) in 2016, so was coming in cold at the start of the residency. I decided to limber up in February by writing short stories. I managed to progress three, though only one was close to finished when I couldn’t resist diving back into the novel any longer.

One thing I didn’t plan to do this year was travel to Italy. I’d resigned myself to hours spent on Google Maps Street view and using a dozen other online cheats to fake it till I made it. Then, around Easter, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse that saw me in Rome in late May with seven days to scout all the places San Giuseppe called home. It took me a while to recover from this lucky wrinkle, but now I can safely say those seven days on the ground were a blessing.

My major side project has been a collaboration with the university’s Computer Science faculty, especially Lech Szymanski, to train a Recurrent Neural Network on lyrics from Dunedin Sound bands in order to create ‘found’ poems ‘about’ Dunedin.

Read more about this project on my blog.

I debuted some of the results at the Found Poetry event for the Dunedin Writers Festival in May and gave a more in-depth presentation about writing with imperfect artificial intelligence at the Otago Institute’s annual What’s Hot evening in July. I’ve also spoken about this work (and earlier poetic experiments) to a contemporary and modern poetry class here at the university and will do something similar for the digital literature course in October.

None of this was on my radar at the beginning of the year and it’s 100% down to being in Dunedin, being connected to the University, and having the time and freedom to follow an interesting thread.

Other activities

(to give future Fellows a picture of what you can get up to):

  • Panel discussion about the writing process with Diane Brown and Hannah Bulloch in February, organized as part of the Otago Summer School.
  • The Welcome the Fellows event in March and the Meet the Fellows panel at the Art Gallery in July.
  • 3-hour long poetry reading (with a little help from friends) at the penultimate station along the Dunedin Amenities Society’s Town Belt Traverse in April.
  • Impromptu reading at the Octagon Poetry Collective in April.
  • Appeared in a Dunedin Writers Festival event on The End of the World at the wonderfully evocative Leviathan Hotel in May.
  • Took part in the NZ Poetry Day lunchtime event at the university in August.
  • Gave a 1-hour seminar on my novel-in-progress as part of the English Department’s Friday seminar series in August.
  • Presented a paper on ‘The Moves in Contemporary Short Stories’ at the Dan Davin Short Story Conference at the start of September, which also involved checking out Invercargill, Bluff and Riverton (and then Stewart Island with my family).
    Go to the Dan Davin Literary Foundation website.

Speaking of tourism, my family and I have been making the most of being located down in Dunedin, having also visited the Catlins (twice so far), Te Anau, Milford Sound and lots of day trips closer to home.

This week I’ve knocked out an essay about writing my first novel, The Mannequin Makers, for my US publisher to hock to various outlets ahead of that novel’s release in the US in November.

I still have a bulging to-do list — places to see, readings to give, poetry competitions to judge, a novel to finish! — and am mulling one large Dunedin-based side project for 2018, when I’ll be back in Wellington (sob).

One year just isn’t enough!

Fellowship chance to break busy routine

Article, Otago Daily Times, Thursday 19 October 2017

Read the ODT article about Craig and his fellowship.

Photo of Victor Rodger

Victor Rodger

Robert Burns Fellow 2016

Victor Rodger is a New Zealand-born playwright of Samoan and palagi descent. His first play, Sons, won four Chapman Tripp theatre awards, including Best New Play and Best New Writer, while his award-winning play Black Faggot has performed to sell out houses in Melbourne, Brisbane, and Edinburgh and throughout New Zealand. Victor is currently adapting Black Faggot for the big screen.

“I was on the outskirts of Paris when I woke up in the middle of the night and discovered I'd been awarded the Burns Fellowship….. I am proud to be the first writer of Samoan descent to be part of the illustrious list of awardees. And I’m excited at the thought of working on two new works which are both real departures for me as a writer,” he says.

His planned works are "Jean's", an Irish family drama, and "Bethlehem” - a dark Kiwi variation of Thelma and Louise.

He would also like to work on "Doll" , a piece that deals with race and race relations set in Scotland.

Photo of Victor courtesy of Deborah Marshall

January 2017


Throughout 2016, people asked me how I’ve found living in Dunedin.  My response has always been the same: It’s easy.  And while New Orleans is already known as The Big Easy, I’ll always think of Dunedin as The Big Easy of the South.
There’s nothing to push against here.  Everything is only ten minutes away. And while it may not have everything you want, it’s certainly got everything you need.

During my fellowship I worked on a variety of projects: I rewrote my 2002 play Ranterstantrum, adapted a short story from the turn of the century called The Ngarara and developed two brand new pieces - Black Ice and White Noise- which were inspired by my time down south.  My first foray into fiction – Skip to the End - was published in Landfall and  subsequently selected for the upcoming collection Black Marks on the White Page,  edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makeriti.

Under the umbrella of my FCC entity, I produced several successful readings of my plays at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, a conscious effort on my part to bring my work to Dunedin and also to give Pasefika actors a relatively rare chance to take centre stage down here.

Among my highlights of the year: watching local man Patrick Ah Kuoi knock it out of the park in his first-ever play reading; giving three youngsters from Southland a chance to strut their stuff in one of the play readings; and helping a young boy from Kiribati write his story about racism in the deep south – a story I am, frankly, tired of hearing.

However, the absolute highlights of my year were encounters with two Samoan icons: the godfather of Pacific literature, Albert Wendt, in Wanaka and the godfather of Pacific art, Johnny Penisula, in Invercargill.  I’m reasonably cynical by nature but spending time with both men was profound for me.

This year I’m off to Wellington to become the Victoria Writer in Residence but I’ll be back for the Dunedin Writer’s Festival in May.  Dunedin certainly hasn’t seen the last of me or my work.

Fa’afetai tele lava Otepoti: it’s been my pleasure.

Victor Rodger

Play reading number 6 poster

Play reading number 5 poster

Play reading number 4 poster

Play reading number 3 poster

Play reading number 1 poster


February 2016

I’m a son of Samoa by way of my late father, but I’m also a son of Scotland by way of my late grandmother, Nora Rodger, who hailed from Broughty Ferry, Dundee.  Nan was a Robert Burns fan and she would’ve gotten a real kick out of seeing her eldest grandchild take up the Robert Burns Fellowship.   My first month here has been busy: I finished a short piece of fiction called Skip to the End which will be published in Landfall; I flew back up to Auckland for the opening of PUZZY, a new work I helped write; and last weekend I held the first in series of public play readings of my work at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.  Now it’s time to get stuck into a new play – Ua Uma (aka The End), a play I was inspired to write when I flew down to Dunedin in October to look for an apartment and came across a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit…. 

A couple of the events Victor was involved with during 2016

Ranterstantrum Redux at the Dunedin Fringe Festival

Robert Burns Fellow 2016, Victor Rodger presents Ranterstantrum Redux, a reworking of his 2002 play Ranterstantrum, a darkly comic exploration of contemporary race relations in Aotearoa.

Monday 7 March
University Bookshop, 378 Great King street

Dunedin Fringe Festival information about Ranterstantrum Redux


Piki Ake Ngā Toi | Tauaveina o tu Fa'afiafiaga | Lifting up the Arts

Victor Rodger (Robert Burns Fellow 2016)
along with Goretti Chadwick (Actor/Director), Robbie Magasiva (Actor), Liv McBride (Musician), and Anapela Polataivao (Actor/Director)

will collaborate and work with young people in Murihiku to produce performing art works.

Sunday 3 - Monday 4 July 2016

Performance for friends and family
Monday 4 July, 5.30pm (followed by a Q&A session with the artists)
University of Otago College of Education, 100 Nelson Street, Invercargill

Supported by Venture Southland, Murihiku Māori & Pasifika Cultural Trust and Creative NZ Communities

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Photo of Louise Wallace

Louise Wallace

Robert Burns Fellow 2015

Wellington-based poet Louise Wallace holds an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, is the author of two books of poetry published by Victoria University Press, and her work has featured in both the 2011 anthology The Best of Best New Zealand Poems and 2014’s Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page.

She has previously taught creative writing at Massey University in Wellington, and also at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.

"I'm excited to see what I can do with such a generous block of writing time. But I'm also looking forward to exploring Dunedin and the south, and I'm very honoured and grateful to be following in the footsteps of previous Robert Burns fellows - it is an amazing list.”

Louise plans to research conversation in poetry, and create her third collection of poetry based on this.

“I'm also interested in all the off-shoots and side projects that the year as a Robert Burns fellow will bring."

January 2016

First issue of Starling launched.

The first issue features amazing poetry and prose by 16 young writers from around New Zealand, who range in age from thirteen through to twenty-five.

The issue also includes three brand new poems from Vincent O'Sullivan and a powerful interview about the writing process with Jessica Hansell aka Coco Solid.

Starling, Issue one, Summer 2016

July/August 2015

Burns Fellow launches literary online journal for young writers

Louise Wallace is the founder of a new literary journal, Starling, for young writers.

The first issue is due out in January 2015 and contributions are welcome.

Closing date for issue #1: October 20, 2015

Go to the Starling website for more information.


April, 2015

It’s hard to believe I am already a quarter of the way through the residency. When you are doing something worthwhile you have your head down, and when you look up it’s surprising to see how much time has already flown by.

When working unsupported, time and freedom are the most difficult things to acquire. On the residency I have them at my disposal, and it is allowing me to really push myself – to work on the things that excite and scare me the most. I am extremely grateful for this opportunity.

I am reading, researching and working on a new collection of poems. I have been gifted an office for the year where I can focus on the work itself, full access to all library facilities, and a great team of colleagues around me in the English department, whose conversations and thoughts add to my experience.

Dunedin has been very welcoming and I am really enjoying seeing all that is going on here in the South. There is a unique history here that is opening itself up to me the more I explore.

I know that I will leave the residency with something wonderful. But for now I am looking only at the day to day, as that is where the work gets done!


Photo of Majella Cullinane

Majella Cullinane

Robert Burns Fellow 2014


2014 Robert Burns Fellow Majella Cullinane couldn’t believe it when she took the phone call informing her of her success.

“I asked if she was sure she had the right person,” Majella says.

“It’s one of New Zealand’s most renowned writing residencies so it was a real surprise.”

Born and raised in Ireland, Majella became a New Zealand resident in 2008. She completed an MLitt. in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in 2006, and has won several awards for her poetry. She has also held Fellowship and Writer-in-Residence positions in Ireland and Scotland. In 2011, her first poetry collection Guarding The Flame was published in Ireland by Salmon Poetry, and in 2012 she was runner-up in the Landfall essay competition.

“I have two projects I’d like to work on next year,” Majella says.

“A second poetry collection and my first novel, set around the First World War and slightly after. The novel begins in Scotland, moves to Ireland and to the battle fields of Europe and features Dunedin as well. I’ll need the whole year to work on something so ambitious. I’m really looking forward to having so much time to write,” she says.

Majella will travel from Paekakariki to Dunedin with her partner Andrew and three year-old son Robbie to take up the Fellowship in February 2014.

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July 2014

It's been almost five and half months since I began the Burns Fellowship, and as I'm about to take a wee holiday I think a progress report is timely. A month or so ago I finished the first draft of my novel set in New Zealand and France between 1890 and 1917, and more recently I completed a third edit of the first part, which amounts to about 30,000 words. So while I let the ink dry on that so to speak, I've also started a little research for my 2nd poetry collection, which is inspired by the letters of two Northern-Irish brothers [my New Zealand partner's ancestors] who came out to New Zealand in 1862. I've also been gathering my thoughts and ideas on my 2nd novel, which is connected to the first, and begins in 1920.

I am often asked how I'm getting on, if I like Dunedin? Absolutely. I feel very at home here, the rain and the frosts are particularly reminiscent of an Irish childhood. But apart from the weather, I have found Dunedinites incredibly welcoming; most particularly the writing community and the University's English Department. I was delighted to be a part of the inaugural Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival in May, and have also participated in the NZSA's Writer's Salon readings and events, The Octagon Collective's Poetry Readings, and presented my first Pecha Kucha in Gore and Invercargill (Southland Literary Festival).

Up until very recently (when it got too cold for Robbie, my wee boy/passenger) we've enjoyed cycling along the Ravensbourne cycle track and harbour each morning; taking in the changing skies, the raucous call of seagulls, and on one occasion the sight of a rather drowsy looking seal. With the end of Daylight Saving in April, I have been very thankful for lifts, (I only started to learn to drive last year), and around the city, invitations to coffee and lunch, and for the many stimulating chats about writing and books, aspirations and dreams, which revitalise and embolden the imagination and creative spirit.

So now it's time to have a rest, and recuperate, to replenish the creative stores, and when I get back tackle Part 2 and Part 3 of the novel, which I'm very much looking forward to.

September 2014

Majella delivered the 2014 Dan Davin lecture

Majella delivered the Dan Davin lecture at the awards ceremony for the Dan Davin Literary Foundation in Invercargill on September 5. She also helped to judge the year's Senior and Junior short story writing competitions for the Foundation.

Find out more about the Dan Davin Literary Foundation.

November and December 2014

Majella featured on National Radio and in the Otago Daily Times

Majella talks on National Radio's 'Standing Room Only' about the First World War era novel she's been working on all year, which incorporates her Irish and now New Zealand homes.

Listen to the interview (Standing Room Only, Sunday 30 November 2014)

Majella talks to the ODT about her writing journey.

Otago Daily Times article. (Charmian Smith, ODT, 4 December 2014)


Photo of David Howard

David Howard

Robert Burns Fellow 2013


David Howard says he was “astonished and honoured” to learn he had secured the fellowship for 2013.

“The Robert Burns Fellowship is my exact and exacting contemporary. I was born in 1959, when the inaugural fellow, Ian Cross, was at his desk,” he says.

“Over my lifetime Burns fellows have produced some of this country’s most compelling and, it must be said, eccentric work.”

David Howard is also a winner of the Gordon & Gotch Poetry Award, the NZ Poetry Society Competition, the NZSA Mid‐Career Writers Award, and the University of South Pacific Press Poetry Prize.

David Howard's major publication is The Incomplete Poems (Cold Hub Press, 2011). He also has a long-standing interest in collaboration. In 2004 his long poem There you go was set by the Czech composer, Marta Jirackova. In 2007 Brina Jez-Brezavscek presented her electro-acoustic setting of The Flax Heckler at a new music festival in Slovenia. And Johanna Selleck's setting of Air, Water, Earth Meld was premiered by soprano Judith Dodsworth at The University of Melbourne in September 2009. David's work with the visual artist Peter Ransom, You're So Pretty When You're Unfaithful To Me, was launched by Holloway Press at the Going West Festival in September 2012.

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Launch of 'the ones who keep quiet'

Otago University Press launched

'the ones who keep quiet' by David Howard

on Tuesday 20 June 2017

Invitation to David Howard book launch

David Howard awarded the 2016 Prague residency for UNESCO City of Literature writers

David is to be New Zealand's first writer in residence in the Czech capital, and plans to begin a series of dramatic monologues on Ian Milner, a controversial Otago-Prague resident.

Read more about David's plans for the residency.

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Otago Wallace Fellowship news

David completed a long poem 'The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014' during this fellowship. The poem appeared in Landfall 229, and David in September 2015 David will explore, with writer/historian Vaughan Yarwood, stories of speculations surrounding James Williamson.

More about the event.

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Cover of Iain Lonie bookA Place to Go On From - The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie

Edited by David Howard

'This collection, assembled from sources public and private, is the result of poet David Howard’s determination to rescue a memorable body of work from oblivion. As well as the poems from Lonie’s published volumes, it includes over a hundred unpublished works, two essays and an extensive commentary.' (Otago University Press)

The collection, published by Otago University Press, will be available from May 2015.

Read a description of the book on the Otago University Press website.


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Cover of The Speak House



David Howard's The Speak House - A Poem in Fifty-Seven Pentastichs on the Final Hours in the Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (Cold Hub Press, 2014), was launched at the inaugural Dunedin Readers and Writers Festival, May 2014.

Read a description of the book on the Cold Hub Press website.







It ends, as it began, with astonishment. In my mid-fifties, having never received a residency, I was wide-eyed when offered the Robert Burns Fellowship. Throughout I have tried to keep my eyes open; to present when invitations arrived; to comment when comment was warranted by students, staff, the wider community to whom one is a transient curiosity; above all to make the work that demanded to be made. We all have an inner and an outer centre – they don’t often share co-ordinates but this year mine have. And I’m thankful.

The Burns gave me both the temptation to make too much work too quickly and the strength to resist. I’ve thrown away more than half of what I’ve drafted. I don’t have a notebook or a save-for-later file because I don’t want a stuttering pile of debris to obscure my view of the new poem. So there are no papers to go to the Hocken Library, although I appreciate the invitation to lodge material. Yet I can’t imagine why anyone would want to wade through the dreck of my drafts. I have enough trouble writing something that’s worth reading for me, let alone expecting someone else will follow the false starts, the wrong turnings, the cul-de-sacs. The Burns has focused my aim to make something genuine, only then will I publish because I know (to borrow Donald Hall’s term) it’s not a McPoem. There are already too many poets exercising their exercises in collections – sestina, anyone? It seems faith is met by faith because, alongside periodical appearances that span three continents, I leave my residency with two books completed; both are contracted to publishers. Disappointment is a snare that I’ve been fortunate to avoid.

Before applying I thought, David, there’s a head of steam but the valve is still closed – the Burns will open that valve. It did. Over 800 lines long, The Mica Pavilion is framed as a four-act chamber opera. After it was drafted the Slovenian composer Brina Jez-Brezavscek, who collaborated with me on The Flax Heckler (2008), generously shared impressions from a musician’s perspective. Now I am confident it is ready for setting, then performance either on stage or the radio.

My next adventure, The Speak House (Cold Hub Press, forthcoming), explores the Samoa of Robert Louis Stevenson. While political it’s not a tract but a dramatic sequence that extends for over 500 lines. As with The Mica Pavilion, there’s intimacy in scale:

The wave never regrets breaking.
It was made to, and you.
Give up what you cannot have
for ever, let the word go
its own way, the way of the echo.
  [TSH, 32]

Another 22 poems, several approaching 100 lines, have been drafted. Given that I typically finish 4 poems each year – squeezing them out of the small hours before venturing into a world where financiers are gods, albeit fallen ones – the following equation seems to work: 1 Burns year = 6 normal years. My eyes are still open wide.

I said that the inner and the outer rarely share co-ordinates. Yet alongside the poet there is an editor, the poet’s probation officer, to whom he reports with awkward justifications for failures of judgement. This editor also mediates with a more mundane but no less essential world than the poet. After taking up the Burns an early invitation came from Harry Ricketts of Victoria University to read for The Selected Poems of Bill Sewell, who was Burns Fellow for 1981-82. I said yes then made emotional space by completing the apparatus for A Place To Go On From: the Collected Poems of Iain Lonie. I was often lost and found at the Hocken Library, checking the worrisome undated drafts of over 100 unpublished poems: mysteries within mysteries. Now that book has been accepted by Otago University Press I’ll spend much of 2014, aided by savings from my Burns’ annus mirabilis, checking transcriptions of Lonie’s erratic handwriting. It’s slow and tiring work so I might ask the librarians for a sleeping bag. And I’ll dream of my time as Burns Fellow.

David Howard (January 2014)

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For He's A Jolly Good Fellow!

A Celebration of Robert Burns' Birthday and the Robert Burns Fellowship

There was a chance to hear readings of the winning poems from the 2014 Robert Burns Poetry Competition. Judges David Howard and Paul Veart presented the awards, while Majella Cullinane talked about her hopes for the year ahead as the University of Otago's 2014 Burns Fellow. January 2014

Read more about the celebration.

Majella Cullinane, Paul Veart and David Howard at a Celebration for Robert Burns Birthday

Majella Cullinane, University of Otago 2014 Robert Burns Fellow, Paul Veart and David Howard

David Howard at the Celebration for Robert Burns Birthday

David Howard, University of Otago 2013 Robert Burns Fellow


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Summer School Sessions

Intellectual conversations on the theme: “Perceptions of Reality”

Professor Richard Jackson and Burns Fellow David Howard discuss “Approaches to truth”, January 2014

David Howard and Cameron Toogood (MC) at summer school sessions

Cameron Toogood (MC) and Burns Fellow David Howard

Cameron Toogood (MC), Richard Jackson and David Howard at the summer school sessions

Cameron Toogood (MC), Professor Richard Jackson, Burns Fellow David Howard
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150 Essential New Zealand Poems

In 2014 Random House New Zealand is publishing an anthology of New Zealand poetry, 150 Essential New Zealand Poems, under its Godwit imprint. It is selected and edited by Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe and Harry Ricketts. Burns Fellow David Howard will be represented by the sequence 'A Simple Chronology', which consists of:

  • 1) 517 St Asaph Street (1966)
  • 2) School Sports (1972)
  • 3) Lyttelton (1984)
  • 4) Marshland Road (1992)
  • 5) Port Chalmers (2003)

January 2014

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The Caselberg Trust Broad Bay School Poetry Competition 2013

On Tuesday 3 December, Burns Fellow David Howard presented his judge's report and the prizes to the winners of the Broad Bay School Poetry Competion, which is sponsored by the Caselberg Trust.

David Howard at the Broad Bay School Poetry Competition 2013

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In the Still Centre: Poetry as an act of compassion

David Howard delivered this talk as part of The Caversham Lectures at St Peters Caversham on Tuesday 26 November 2013.

The video and audio files of this talk are available on the St Peters Caversham website, and the links to those files are provided below:

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Public reading at launch of Landfall 226: Heaven and Hell

Dunedin poets and writers celebrated the launch of the latest edition of Landfall, Landfall 226: Heaven and Hell, with a public reading at the University of Otago Bookshop on 21 November 2013.

poets and writers at the launch of Landfall 226: Heaven and Hell

Lynley Edmeades, Richard Reeve, Loveday Why, editor David Eggleton and Burns Fellow David Howard at the launch.


Read a review about Landfall 226.


Burns Fellows featured at the 125th Anniversary Celebrations of the Dunedin Amenities Society

On Sunday 3 November 2013, between 11am and 1.30pm, Burns Fellow David Howard was joined by Alan Roddick, the Literary Executor of Charles Brasch, at The Close (Prospect Park).

David and Alan read poems by Charles Brasch (who was instrumental in establishing the Burns Fellowship) and Ruth Dallas (Burns Fellow 1968), along with their own work, to the 600+ people who followed the 7.9km Town Belt Traverse as part of the official 125th Anniversary Celebrations of the Dunedin Amenities Society.

Find out more about the 125th Anniversary Celebrations of the Dunedin Amenities Society.

David Howard at Prospect Park

Burns Fellow David Howard reads from the Collected Poems of Ruth Dallas
[Photograph: Antony Hamel]


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ODT photo of David Howard

University of Otago 2013 Burns Fellow David Howard: 'During my teens reading poetry took over from reading anything else and I found I could get into quite a receptive space if I was in front of a powerful poem. It helped me get an enhanced sense of my own possibility.' Photo by Craig Baxter.

A world of imagination and discovery

By Charmian Smith on Thursday, 24 Oct 2013
Arts Section, Otago Daily Times

More exciting than pyrotechnics or performance is the quietness of making or reading poetry, according to David Howard. Charmian Smith talks to the University of Otago 2013 Burns Fellow.

Making poetry is the most exciting thing David Howard has found to do with his time.

If we back our hunches through our teens and 20s, we find what excites us and keeps us alive and can then spend the rest of our lives trying to keep that treasured area and grow it, the 2013 Burns Fellow at the University of Otago says.

Howard (54) says he started reading poetry seriously when he was 12, working his way from A to Z through the poetry section of the Christchurch Public Library.

He had been introduced to the poems of Robert Burns by his maternal grandfather, who was a Scot.

''I remember I'd been thrilled by the way the language was patterned. During my teens reading poetry took over from reading anything else and I found I could get into quite a receptive space if I was in front of a powerful poem. It helped me get an enhanced sense of my own possibility,'' he said.

''Instead of being all over the place and angry and trying to do 1000 things at once, and trying to impress my friends and impress girls and all that nonsense - necessary nonsense - I could just sit in front of a poem and all the pretence and striving dropped away and I just got into an almost pure sense of wonder - and how someone could make something like this. So I started to try and make something like this.''

Studying Keats in high school gave him a sense of how to use alliteration and assonance, and reading the Liverpool poets with their pop references and talk about smoking and girls gave him a sense of poetry being part of an ongoing contemporary way of being rather than something in a museum, he said.

When he left school he decided to become a poet, understanding he wouldn't make money out of it and would have to do other work to survive. At first he did labouring and retail work which didn't require a lot of training and didn't consume his imagination or take away from the poetry. While in his early 20s his poems were published in Landfall and the Listener. Since then he has had 10 volumes of poetry published by small publishers, the latest being You're So Pretty When You're Unfaithful To Me (2012) and his work has been included in several anthologies.

However, he became ''heartily sick of doing menial jobs'' by his late 20s so he trained to become a pyrotechnist, working with fireworks and special effects. It supported him and his son: he was a solo dad, he said.

''It got really interesting and was quite consuming and almost negative for poetry in one sense because it took time away from it, but it gave me financial security which I hadn't had before.''

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In Auckland in the 1990s there was a lot of pyrotechnic work and plenty of money around. It was a productive time in terms of the New Zealand spin machine. He worked with municipal authorities, sports teams, musicians, and advertising agencies producing special effects like a wall of flame around a photocopier. It was a culture of excess that fireworks rode with nicely but poetry didn't, he said.

''I was consistently working in an imaginative way with people who didn't really care about literature. That may sound negative, but it's really good. I think one of the problems may be of working surrounded by people who share the same taste as you is you come into this false view that everybody values what you value,'' he said.

''Working with people who didn't read poetry, didn't read novels, actually didn't read, was really good for me because it meant when I did make space for a poem, when a poem muscled in on my busy life in my 30s, I didn't bring to the making of the poem a lot of literary assumptions. It just let me listen more closely to what was happening on the page than I might otherwise have been able to if I'd been surrounded by an academic environment.''

About 10 years ago he moved back to the South Island, buying a house at Purakaunui where he has lived since. It was about rediscovering that quiet space. In a busy city life, trying to make money and keep your head above water you lose the opportunity and the will to make a quiet, almost religious space, he said.

''It's a contemplative space, a space where you are trying to honour yourself and the world. I don't believe anybody can go through life without doing that on a regular basis and remain well.''

In the country he took his cues from the change of light, the hawk flying past at 7.50 in the mornings and 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

''I realised again, as I realised as a child, that the wider world is quite indifferent to human beings and really doesn't care because caring isn't what creation is about. It gave me a sense of time that is different. When you live in a city you are totally scheduled up and you begin to believe almost without thinking that everything is set by the will of men and women. When you live in the country you realise this is not the case at all. For me making poems has become, as I've got older, an even more spiritual activity than it was for the teenager who wanted wonder.''

Besides writing his own poems, he co-founded the literary journal Takahe to publish young writers, especially South Island writers who tended to be overlooked by other literary publications, he said.

Because writing is a solitary activity, Howard enjoys collaborating with other artists.

''To keep myself on my toes in terms of literature, it's been useful to work with other disciplines that require me to think outside the square about how to make poems. Working with composers has been an ongoing interest because when you bring orchestration or any other type of sound - it may be electronic sound - to language and you have voices of trained singers, then as an author your sense of what's going to work changes. I also have to listen really closely when I work with someone else. I can't just ride on my own prejudices and preferred methods of working. If you are working in a group you have to be more generous; you have to listen more closely than if you are just working on your own,'' he said.

''The leaps of imagination that happen in a poem delight me and, I hope, delight the reader, but it's all solitary. The reader's in his or her own room and I'm in my little office and there isn't much of a public dimension to that. It's a very private activity.''

Howard sometimes reads his poetry to audiences but says an actor would do it better as he's not a skilled performer. Unlike some poets who specialise in performance and write specifically to entertain a live audience, he sees poetry as an act of imagination and discovery.

''What attracted me to poetry was its capacity to cause wonder. It only causes wonder if two things are present. One, there has to be an inquiring mind on the part of both the reader and the writer, and there has to be attention to language on the part of both the reader and the writer. Neither of those things, it seems to me, are served by wilful acts of attention-seeking.''

He is cynical about publishers' marketing hype. It doesn't fit well with literature, which takes its strength from quietness and the one-on-one relationship between writer and reader, he said.

''That means that when the language that's associated with large sports events and marketing promotions is applied to literature there is violence done to the medium. I'm so sick of artificial stars: someone writes a novel and it's the best thing since James Joyce wrote Ulysses, or someone wins a minor award and suddenly they are touring the country on the back of it.''

During his fellowship year, Howard has been working on two long poems that he approaches rather like writing a novel, planning the setting and main characters and their relationships, he said.

''The reason I do this is so I don't just drift all over the place and have this kind of arbitrary mess which you can very easily get into in a long piece. It gives clarity and direction, but having clarity and direction still allows for surprise in a long poem. You find a line turns up from your character and you had no idea that your character thought that or felt that. I again emphasise the novel link but the difference is the precision of the language, the capacity to put ideas together than don't normally come together in everyday life.''

However, shorter lyric poems tend just to turn up if you listen, he says.

''People say it's all perspiration and hard work, but I believe very strongly there's inspiration but that's just a term for listening.

''If you sit in your armchair, lie in your hammock, wait at your office desk for long enough, you will hear something. It sounds mystical, but that's your poem. And then it really is as if you are being dictated to when it's going well. It's almost as if someone else is writing the script for you and you just have to make sure you understood that word properly and you didn't mishear it.''

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Robert Burns Fellow's creativity "fecund"

Jovial email conversations with the 2014 Robert Burns Fellow Majella Cullinane have forced this year's incumbent to contemplate the approaching end of his own year of unalloyed, uninterruped creativity.

"It's been the best writing year of my life; there is no qualification on that statement," Purakaunui poet David Howard says.

Read the rest of the October 2013 Otago Bulletin article.

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July/August 2013

Burns Fellow David Howard at Otago Boys High School

Otago Boys High School hosts the Burns Fellow, David Howard, for an hour-long discussion about writing poetry (Thursday 22 August 2013)

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David Howard is the August guest editor for the U.S. blog Truck

Read about this on Beattie's Book Blog.

One Short Poem - celebration of National Poetry Day on August 16

One Short Poem poster

See photos from the event

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A Place to Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie

David Howard's first project as Burns Fellow has been accepted for publication in 2015 by Otago University Press.

A Place To Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie is edited from the manuscripts and typescripts in the Hocken Library, supplemented by material from several private collections. While bringing together the texts of Lonie's five published poetry volumes, it also includes over one hundred previously unpublished poems. The volume features extensive notes and a preface by David Howard, a critical essay by Damian Love, a chronology by Bridie Lonie, and a memoir of Lonie by former Burns Fellow Bill Sewell.

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Four New Zealand poets, including David Howard, are featured in the Spanish language literary magazine Revista Replicante

Four New Zealand poets, including David Howard, have been translated by the best-selling Mexican novelist Rogelio Guedea, a senior lecturer in the Spanish Programme at the University of Otago.

Go to the article in Revista Replicante

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Poetry with a Pulse II: David Howard and Lisa Samuels

These readings feature poems by David Howard, 2013 University of Otago Robert Burns Fellow, and Lisa Samuels, poet, critic and an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland. Loveday Why, poet and postgraduate student at the University of Otago, accompanies David on some readings. 31 July 2013

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Rain returns to Richardson

Rain has returned to the University’s Richardson building.

A reproduction of Ralph Hotere’s large and imposing painting was hung in the building’s foyer last week, replacing the original which will remain in the Hocken Library.

Read the full Otago Bulletin article.

david howard reading rain

Current Burns Fellow David Howard reads the poetry of former Burns Fellow Hone Tuwhare in the foyer of the Richardson Building to mark the hanging of facsimiles of the 'Rain' banners by Ralph Hotere. The original banners are now in the Hocken Library.

Photograph: Robin Frame

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Review of David Howard's You're So Pretty When You're Unfaithful To Me

"Sounding a Wintersian note from the get-go, I assert that David Howard is our finest poet" writes Robert McLean in the Landfall Review online, July 1 2013.

Read the review

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March 2013

Here is a brief outline of my current project.


I view poetry as a way of knowing; it is primarily an attempt to understand rather than an aesthetic endeavour. The informing question of my recent work is: What can we know if not the past?

In his monumental The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge University Press, 1985) David Lowenthal observes that: ‘The more strenuously we build a desired past, the more we convince ourselves that things really were that way; what ought to have happened becomes what did happen. If we profess only to rectify our predecessors’ prejudices and errors and to restore pre-existing conditions, we fail to see that today’s past is as much a thing of today as it is of the past; to bolster faith that the past originally existed in the form we now devise, we minimize or forget our own alterations.’ So ‘knowing’ is a hazardous process rather than an assured state.

While the institutional and informal racism endured by Chinese migrants in the nineteenth century is a matter of public record here, in the twenty-first century popular suspicion of Asian immigration and investment is growing again due to the economic and therefore political dominance of China over our traditional trading partners.

One month into the Fellowship I have already fleshed out a skeletal synopsis:

Despite the opposition of their respective families and friends, a young Kai Tahu woman is courted by a Chinese migrant who chases gold but more often finds mica in the Otago of the 1850s. She becomes love-sick, dies, and wanders the underworld. All the while her erstwhile but faithful lover sees her in dreams. The intensity of his commitment causes the goddess of the underworld, Hine-nui-te-po, to return the beloved to her partner.

- This rather operatic outline is borrowed from the sixteenth century Chinese classic The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu. I am using the Otago goldfields as a way of exploring the perennial tangle that is desire, placing the body in the body politic, and plotting New Zealand’s complex position within an increasingly Asian-centred business world.

David talks about his work and the fellowship on RNZ's Arts on Sunday programme, Sunday 24 February 2013

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David Howard's poem The Whole of Boredom included in 'Best NZ Poems 2012'

Poet Laureate Ian Wedde's selection of the 'Best NZ Poems 2012' has recently gone online and includes David Howard's poem The Whole of Boredom.

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Photo of Emma Neale

Emma Neale

Robert Burns Fellow 2012


December 2012

I look back and polish my sense of luck. How fortunate I have been this year. What have I been given? A room to retreat to when my home office is like a colander that lets all domestic noise pour through it; colleagues who are welcoming, interested, yet also understanding about the need for solitude; opportunities to speak to students, general staff, general public, academic staff, and be reminded that literature is still an anchor and a compass for so many people, despite industry anxieties about the effects of digitalization, recession, and the competition from other media for public attention.

This year the opportunity to attend lectures and seminars has meant that some of my work has changed, been abandoned, or reactivated. Taking part in a poetics seminar series with Jacob Edmond and his graduate students has been particularly galvanizing: it’s re-routed some of my reading habits, and triggered a sheaf of new poems. Discussions with general audiences have given me ideas for new work, too: even though sometimes the public speaking has felt like a distraction from writing, there have been other instances when it’s actually handed me fresh material.

I’ve had the chance to explore new publishing avenues, and have had poems picked up for next year by local and overseas journals; and of course to have some poems boomerang back again, which is still (as I tell my occasional students) in itself a useful part of the rewriting/editing process.

I leave the fellowship with a couple of short stories, about fifty pages of poems and the first draft of a novel that I think is three-quarters of the way there. I have just over 60,000 words and although there is the temptation to put on a final sprint for the last 20,000 before the funding runs out, one of the lessons that I’ve re-learnt during the fellowship is that time to research and mull is vital. As I said recently at two public forums, I’m writing what you might call psychological fiction, and getting to know the characters and the dynamics between them is like trying to win the trust of very nervy, feral animals; or stubborn, willful toddlers. It takes time, and patience, and yet more patience and time… in the age of status updates, the tweet, instant messaging and instant gratification, this creative process can seem unfashionably, even embarrassingly slow. Yet I try to think of the difference between vine-ripened tomatoes and their forced cousins when I start to get agitated about how quickly this year has passed. If I rush the last quarter of this first draft, I’ll end up with the literary equivalent of that feeble fruit, the pinkish tomato: something bland, watery, and even rubbery — but without the bounce.

I would say more, but Billy, the boy in the novel, is tugging at my sleeve, saying, did you know that some birds can trace their prey by detecting UV light in their urine trails? Or that the great grey owl has asymmetric ears? Or that there is a woodpecker called the Lord God Bird? Or that birds have air sacs as well as lungs, because they use so much oxygen to fly? (He’s been reading, among many other books on birds,  Bird Sense: What it’s Like to be a Bird, by Tim Birkhead.) His parents and his school are getting somewhat concerned about his obsession, and about some of the bizarre ways he’s expressing anxiety: they’re on the phone to each other now, so I better go and trace that call.

Only one life, so much to learn, so many other possible lives to invent, and so, vicariously lead….

Status update: prematurely nostalgic for the Burns.

Progress Report, Detour Report

As I write this, I’m a third of the way through the Robert Burns Fellowship, and wondering if I missed something in the residency regulations’ small print. The Burns Fellow gets a gorgeously sunny office (prime real estate: sunshine hours are directly related to creative productivity); a computer; access to the library equivalent of a five-star hotel; all the stationery you could wish for; legendary, even themed Friday morning teas (celebrating Dickens, or Star Wars on 4 May — May the Fourth be With You: it was like a children’s birthday party without the fear that everything would turn to Lord of the Flies after the cake). The Fellow receives the company of warm, accommodating, yet also non-intrusive colleagues, who might suggest interesting reading, leave surprise packets of words in your pigeon hole, invite you to seminars, yet, also, vitally, leave you to get on with your work as you need. But wait. There’s a hitch; a stitch-in-time; the clocks got switched. Already it’s autumn. The sky is full of visual rhymes: gold leaves turn and glint beside the Leith; a flock of birds flickers as it shifts in formation; like a panel of sequins tipping and pouring light to and fro in one of the Reuben Patterson wall installations at Milford Gallery. It’s stunning. But do the rules stipulate that the Fellowship year must run unnaturally fast?

There is a paradox, here, as the four months I’ve held the role have brimmed with riches. The generosity of the gift of time has meant that I’ve been able, at relative leisure, to edit and proof-read The Truth Garden and to rework first drafts of other ‘latent’ poems: a handful written after the collection, but before the fellowship began. It also means not only that I’ve managed to get more immersed in one of the larger projects I’d proposed for the year, but, perhaps counter-intuitively, that I’ve had the freedom not to write, too. By this I mean I’ve been quicker to realise that one idea ought to be abandoned for now. When trying to cram in writing around the edges of freelance editing and all the urgent demands of parenthood (I have an image of a pan of popcorn: children’s needs all firing off at once, the adults madly scrambling around to turn the heat down, find the lid, prevent house fires and keep things almost-orderly), it takes a lot longer to accept that something might be a false start, or not a healthy psychic space to explore — even if it’s a character’s psychic space, not one’s own — at that particular point in time. So, curiously, having the time to research, read, think and write has also meant the liberation of being able to say, whoah, don’t just put it on the back burner, turn that Bunsen right off! I’m lucky: I’d far rather realise that a novel was going to be a sad and twisted little runt of a thing at three months, than after three years of trying to feed it with drop by precious drop of time siphoned from money-work, family life.

Being in an academic context can be both unsettling and invigorating. Unsettling in a good sense: the lively, inquisitive minds around you are constantly questioning artistic practice — and it is very useful for a writer to be reminded that these things are discussed not only by other practitioners, or the echo chambers of one’s own head, but in the wider culture of assiduous readers, too. Unsettling is good, if it means it makes you see your own approach with fresh-rinsed eyes, and look at your surroundings as if you, too, are new here.

A previous Burns Fellow, Fiona Farrell, passed on some advice that resonates all the more now. To paraphrase: she said don’t be surprised if what you intend doesn’t come to fruition — having the freedom and the time in itself will head you off on unexpected quests. She was right. I’ve been able to seize the seeds for disparate, unplanned poems as they flit by: like thistledown parachutes bowling past on warm air. And the larger project that has continued to draw me back into its loops has morphed. I wanted it to be a series of interlinked poems: but it would seem, so far, that a strong riptide of narrative has washed away the boundaries between poems. This might just be part of the drafting process: once I have the characters and events clearer, maybe I’ll be scooping away sand, letting in runnels of water, sculpting it back into the series of poems I’d aimed for.

This is what a fellowship year does: it allows a writer to tinker, rethink, give in to the hungers of the work itself, the specific conditions it demands. It’s reminded me afresh that the psychological work of a longer creative piece is hard. It is both a luxury to be able to sit down each day and wrestle with the angels of art, and at times, a grinding, uncomfortable challenge. Those angels have forbidding muscles: they don’t always want to be pinned down for the count on the page. So, yes, there are some things a fellowship won’t do. It won’t simplify the creative process. It will allow a writer to rediscover its challenges. It won’t give you a vacation from yourself: but it will give you a version of bed and breakfast — a desk and chair, mind-food, and some engaging, chance companions en route to your destination: be that the port of fiction, poetry, non-fiction or memoir. I’m immensely grateful (thank-tatic! Ecsta-ful!) for the ticket the Burns Committee has booked for me.

Emma's Blog

Celebrating National Poetry Day 2012 with Q & A with Emma Neale

Go to the New Zealand Book Council website for this interview.

Emma's The Truth Garden listed as one of the Listener's best books for 2012

View the list

Celebrate National Poetry Day with a Poem in Your Pocket

poem in your pocket poster

Read the poems selected for the 2012 National Poetry Day


Photo of Fiona Farrell

Fiona Farrell

Robert Burns Fellow 2011

Back in 1968 I was a student in the English Department at Otago. I recall that year’s Burns Fellow walking down the corridor at about this time of year, handing out Easter eggs from his grubby pockets, before he retired to meditate under a tree outside the Museum.

Fresh from Oamaru and utterly daunted by the sophistication of Dunedin, I had no idea that I might someday myself become a Burns Fellow. It was inconceivable. Being at the university was extraordinary enough. Few in my family had been educated beyond the age of 12. My paternal great grandmother could not even write her own name, signing official documents with a shaky cross.

That I am here I know is down to luck: the sheer good fortune of being born in an era where thousands of political decisions combined to give me an education and the opportunity to be myself. A writer. Without those decisions which we bundle together loosely and label ‘socialism’ or ‘feminism’ my life would have been very different.

I have been able to spend my time writing novels and poems, producing plays, going to festivals here and abroad, taking up residencies and living for a time in interesting foreign places. And now I am back here at Otago, where I have been made so very welcome by the English Department. It feels as if I am coming full circle, back to the place where I acquired the education which has been the bedrock of all I have been able to create in my life since. That solid, free education – which my generation to its shame has not decided to make equally freely available to our children.

I am grateful to the English Department, the trustees of the Fellowship and the university for the honour that they have conferred on me. I hope that this year I’ll be able to write something true and strong and worthy of their confidence.

The Burns Year, Fiona Farrell, November 2011

I could write this piece in one word: fantastic!

If asked to be a little more specific, I’d mention:

1. the opportunity to write and write and write. I finished a book in April. ‘The Broken Book’ a collection of essays and poems, published in October this year by Auckland University Press. Its launch marked a very satisfying end to the year.

I’ve also written poems, articles and a libretto for a chamber opera, ‘River Lavalle’, with the Mozart Fellow, Chris Adams. We are workshopping it in January and will be presenting its first public performance at 7pm on January 28th, at Allen Hall.

I’m presently finishing a collection of interviews for Canterbury University Press, for publication on February 22, 2012.

And I am in the first stages of what I hope will prove to be a viable novel.

2. the opportunity to meet and talk with so many interesting people, to attend concerts and plays and enjoy the life of this city, to walk on the peninsula, spend time in libraries and galleries, charge up with new ideas and sensations.

As I said at the beginning, fantastic!

Photo of Michele Powles

Michele Powles

Robert Burns Fellow 2010

I have to admit to almost falling off my chair when I got the phone call about this residency. “You want me, are you sure?” I am so new at this, this writing world, these spiky letters and fulsome characters. But once assured that no, there had been no mistake, I was elated, excited, electric – a glorious list of glowing adjectives. To be able to dive into an expanse of time where only books and words and characters and syntax and punctuation and words and words and words matter is incredibly exciting. But it goes further that that: towards some sort of legitimacy, towards a buoying of self belief. To be able to call oneself a writer, one that follows after a long list of New Zealand’s literary champions, is entirely precious.

The Burns Fellowship is so wonderfully packaged too: paid permission to generate thousands of strings of words; and the time and space to leave the words alone for a period before rearranging them into books and stories. And the Library of course, a repository for afternoon reading, all within arms reach. There is too something delicious about it being hosted in Dunedin, a city cloistered in the vibrancy of student life and yet expansive in its ocean views and commitment to wildlife. I used to live in Edinburgh, and I’m hoping some of that sister city’s creaky history sits within Dunedin’s bones, while the newness of New Zealand will tamper it with a fresh attitude.

And with this generous amount of time (because everyone wants to know what you’ll do with this time) I want to complete a novel project I started in the UK almost two years ago, and start a couple of other projects that have been festering in my head for too long. I want to implant in myself the smell of winter snow and cement an ability to let it out on a hot sunny day. I would like to dream, and think and simply, write.

Michele Powles, 2010

Up north there always seems to be too much movement for water to be a perfect mirror. But each day, as I rode or walked or drove from the centre of Dunedin out to Saint Leonards where I lived throughout the fellowship, there it was: the world, reflected and still in the water. It’s beautiful. That quiet. That still. That’s what I think of as Dunedin.

I have to admit to almost falling off my chair when I got the phone call to become the Burns Fellow and even now it seems surreal. I am so new at this, this writing world, these spiky letters and fulsome characters, I said at the beginning of the year. The Burns Fellowship is so wonderfully packaged: paid permission to feast wholeheartedly on words; and the time and space to leave the words alone for a period before rearranging them into books and stories. I said at the beginning of the project that to be able to call oneself a writer, one that follows after a long list of New Zealand’s literary champions, is entirely precious, and anyone who has received recognition of this nature will I’m sure agree. So to any who have thought of applying, absolutely do it. And relish living that life of whatever you want in a new city: be a hermit (like I did I have to admit) or of course, enjoy the full scope of southern hospitality and revel in her people.

Perhaps because of my self imposed hermitage, I’ve written a lot this year. Several projects are close to completion, a novel for adults and one for children, and I found the sparks of old ideas reignited into pages of words. But writing is a long process, so perhaps rather than the outpouring of words, this year has taught me most that other writerly skill: patience. For the first time, writing seems like a career, the idea that I will just keep writing. And that projects will come and go, but the craft will continue to grow and me with it. I said I hoped to “implant in myself the smell of winter snow and the capacity to let it out at a moment's notice on a hot sunny day.” It snowed. It rained. It was quiet and still and the world was bright and dark and wide in Dunedin. And I certainly got my wish to dream, and think and simply, write. Thank you.

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Photo of Michael Harlow

Michael Harlow

Robert Burns Fellow 2009

With the exception of the good fortune I had to spend some ten months as the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in and around Menton, France, and a stint as the Randell Cottage writer-in-residence, I haven’t had until now what writers desire and need and sometime even dream about: that sustained period of untrammeled time and space to get down to the creative business of writing (and reading), reading and (writing); or sometimes just sitting inside the alphabet thinking about and reflecting on what’s ‘going down’ and around day in, day out.

And the Burns Fellowship is wonderfully set up to provide much of that. In one sense: paid permission to let words dream again; and the time and space to arrange those words into a poem, into poetry (or prose), into a book. For me, there’s also the added and important fact of being part of a community that is engaged in the often exciting pursuit of learning and knowledge and teaching. And of course, having access to a very fine library is a bonus indeed—just a whistle and a dash away.

I’ve got a number of projects on the go, as it were. A new book of poems, at the moment entitled The Invisible Reader; and something of a new departure for me and what I hope will turn into a kind of ‘novella’—a series of essay texts that will make imaginative and fictional use of some psychoanalytical material I have been working with for some years now. There’s a third project that involves working in collaboration with the composer Kit Powell (a New Zealand composer many years resident in Suisse). We’ve created a number of music-drama performance pieces over the years, the last one a commissioned work for an international festival in St Petersburg (Russia). This new Work is in its beginning stages, so I don’t want to say too much about what isn’t yet there in any substantial way.

It’s pretty much day-to-day stuff at the moment, and keeping at it. And it’s a great gift, as it were, to have the Burns and its supporters to get on with translating the all of it into finished works.

Michael Harlow, February 2010

Without any risk to hyperbole, I have to say that the Burns year for me was a splendid experience. To have a sustained period of untroubled time, and space to get down to the creative business of writing--and the knowledge that one was getting (paid) permission to ‘let words dream again’ is any writer’s big wish. Fulfilled. Add to which being an active part of the university community (and the community-at-large), where words and ideas keep flying about looking for a place to settle. For me, this kind of association and participation as a writer was a 'big plus'. I found it stimulating, and sometimes nurturing of the creative spirit. I particularly valued my association with the English department; they were supportive in many ways, including the secretarial support-staff (special thanks).

I certainly enjoyed and valued the library as a resource centre. In particular, my association with Special Collections and its Director Donald Kerr. They're very creative and imaginative in keeping a focus on books and the book world. I found their work--especially the exhibitions--quite inspiring. And they are very supportive of writers, and writing. They know how to keep alive and interesting the 'pleasure of the book'. On a number of occasions, I found myself thinking 'There's some very, very good stuff going on here--what a great connection for the Burns writer. More please'.

In addition to the above, a number of highlights for me. Finishing a new book of poems (The Invisible Reader)--in first-draft form. As a poet-librettist, the completion of a collaborative project with the NZ-Suisse composer Kit Powell: writing the texts for a Mass, in this instance a Missa Profana or Secular Mass, which is scheduled for performance in NZ sometime at the end of 2010, or early next year. Completing a journal-entry Tapa Notebook for a special archive at the University of Auckland--as a result of taking part in a Poetry off the Page project initiated by Michele Leggot, the inaugural NZ Poet Laureate, and her colleague Helen Sword. This latter project was rather an unexpected opportunity, and 'a beaut one' as they say across the drinks table. Holding the Burns fellowship does 'open doors' and create additional opportunities for a writer and that fact is an important one to be mindful of and alert to. And I was finally able to do some research-reading, and drafting of my next book project: a book of short, imaginative essay texts making use of a number of notebook/journal entries, and in particular some psychoanalytic material I've been working with for a number of years.

Finally, some really interesting times spent working with poets and aspiring poets (student and staff) during a 'Poetry Hour' set up during the year. And fun, too.

I would particularly like to thank the Fellowship committee for this opportunity; and the English department for their support and interest. And of course the library, and the poets at Poetry Hour who turned up, courageous enough to be 'voluntarily cornered', and who turned out some pretty interesting material, too.

Michael Harlow / Burns Fellow, February 2010

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Photo of Sue Wootton

Sue Wootton

Robert Burns Fellow 2008

I'm a bit of a late starter as far as writing goes. My first poetry collection, Hourglass (Steele Roberts) was published in 2005, when I was 44. Since then, my short stories and poetry have been widely published. My second poetry collection, Magnetic South (Steele Roberts), came out in February 2008. But during the years prior to this I was a reader. I often read work by previous Burns Fellows, never imagining that I'd one day have the honour of following in their footsteps, or rather, their inkprints. I've been inspired by so many previous Fellows, by their poetry or fiction, and by their life stories.

What the fellowship offers me goes far beyond Virginia Woolfe's "money and a room of one's own" - though it offers both of these, and both are very welcome. It goes beyond the collegial contact with interesting folk I meet in the English Department corridor and on campus generally – though that is also welcome, and stimulating. If offers something even more empowering, which has to do with the inherent legitimisation of writing as work. The Robert Burns Fellowship is respectful of writers, and of writing. It takes writers seriously. It gives you time and space - flame and fuse – then it stands well back. It waits to see what will happen.

In a fantastic paradox which gets close to the heart of what the work of writing is, the moment I was given the key to the Robert Burns office I felt I'd been given the key to the dress-up box - and permission to play. For an entire year I can immerse myself in reading, in reflection, in crafting words. I can try new approaches, follow creative hunches that may or may not bear fruit. I can spend generous amounts of time working interesting but insubstantial impulses into something finished and solid.

As well as allowing me to write more poetry, the Fellowship gives me the opportunity to extend my fiction and essay writing skills. I intend by year's end to have completed a collection of short stories for adults, and to have the basis for a third collection of poetry. Interspersed with these projects I'm also working on a storybook for children which is due to be published mid-year. Those are the goals right now, but anything might happen...


Sue Wootton, March 2009

Sue Wootton Poetry Day 2009

A highlight during the first half of my year as Burns Fellow was collaborating with Barbara Snook (Dance Fellow) and Chris Watson (Mozart Fellow) for Barbara's Circle of Life project, culminating in an integrated public performance of dance, music and poetry. On Montana Poetry Day in July, poet Cy Matthews and I took poetry to the streets, or at least to the footpaths of campus, chalking poems to brighten and intrigue the mid-winter mind. In September a short story I wrote early in my tenure, 'Virtuoso', was a winner in the NZ Book Month "Six Pack" competition. In October, I had the pleasure and stimulation of meeting many past fellows during the Burns Fellowship 50th celebrations.

Sue Wootton NZ Book Month award

The year gave me valuable reading and reflecting time - seed-time which too often has to be neglected through pressure of time. I expect that much of what I did during the Burns tenure will bear fruit in years to come. I did, however, complete first draft manuscripts of two projects: a collection of poetry with the working title "Utterly", and a collection of short stories called "Trouble Sleeping".

I thank the Fellowship committee for giving me this opportunity. There are many levels of reward inherent in such a fellowship, and my year reflected this: it was, in so many ways, enriching, nourishing, and productive.



Otago Fellows University of Otago