Wellington-based poet Jo McNeice has been awarded this year’s Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award for her manuscript, Blue Hour. She receives a $10,000 prize and a year’s subscription to Landfall. Otago University Press will also publish her winning manuscript in 2024.
Composed over the past 25 years, McNeice says that a significant amount of Blue Hour was written while completing her Masters in Creative Writing in 2013, though some poems sprung from her late teens and early twenties.
‘Sometimes I will sit down to write a poem and it will almost fall out of my head onto the page and feel complete without much tinkering. But most of the poems need a lot more work, after writing them they then might be taken apart, reassembled and agonised over to varying degrees, before they feel finished – one of the poems in the collection took ten years from start to finish.’
Darkness and light run through this intimate collection, drawing on themes of love and madness, betrayal, desire and recovery. McNeice says her poems are inspired by her life experiences and her responses to other art forms.
‘I often get inspired by looking at art, especially photography books. It’s a good way to turn my attention outward. It’s the same with watching film, images or snatches of story or character might slip into a poem.’
Blue Hour also pays particular attention to nature, a gentle tribute to many of McNeice’s beloved spots around Wellington.
‘I find a lot of inspiration walking in green spaces. Especially through Karori cemetery. It’s sprawling and peaceful, it feels like nature is reclaiming itself. Looking at the plants, insects, graves, statues, birds, there’s an amazing amount of material.’
2023 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award Judge Anne Kennedy says that Blue Hour unfolds as a moving story, a ‘Gothic/fairytale’ set in a contemporary world. It tells the journey of a woman ‘searching among the images and events of her life for answers – sometimes finding them, sometimes not.’
‘The central theme of mental health feels strong and immediate, yet the poems dance in different ways, giving a visceral and nuanced sense of a life.’
‘The voice is beautiful yet unsettling, aching yet funny, lyric yet gritty. Blue Hour is constructed in such a way that fragments, memories and allusions circle and surge, build and resound. It feels as if the poet is reaching across an almost impossible divide to show the reader what it’s like. Each time I read Blue Hour, I discovered more, was surprised more, yet kept coming home to the rich and challenging centre of this work.’
The collections shortlisted for the 2023 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award are: Song of the Vowels by Brian Flaherty; A Year of Seasons by Saradha Koirala; and Wearing Today by Wes Lee.
The biennial poetry award from Landfall and the Kathleen Grattan Trust is for an original book-length collection of poems by a New Zealand or South Pacific permanent resident or citizen.
Jo McNeice’s winning manuscript will be published in 2024 by Otago University Press. You can read the award announcement and Anne Kennedy’s full judge’s report in Landfall 246: Spring 2023 edited by Lynley Edmeades.