Flash Frontier

James Norcliffe: We’re not all bad. We just can’t help ourselves.

Interviews and Features

James NorcliffeIn December 2022, we celebrated James Norcliffe’s new novel for young people, The Crate (see that interview here). Now, in March 2023, James is back with a new poetry collection that demonstrates the many reasons why he was recently honoured with Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry. The editors of Flash Frontier are proud to call him our colleague and friend. He has mighty publishing record and he’s an all around very good human being.

Here’s a little more – with some reviews of his new collection, links and a couple poems, too.

More about the poet
James has published twelve collections of poetry. His latest collection Letter to ‘Oumuamua was launched at Scorpio Books in Christchurch last month. He has also written fourteen novels for young people, including the young adult fantasy The Loblolly Boy, which made the USSBY list of best foreign children’s books published in the USA, more recently Twice Upon a Time, the two Mallory, Mallory books and The Crate, published late last year. A new novel Lost City is scheduled for release this year.

Letter to ‘OumuamuaJames is also an editor for the online journal Flash Frontier and he has edited anthologies of poetry and the annual ReDraft anthologies of writing by young people. He has co-edited major poetry and short fiction anthologies most recently Bonsai (with Michelle Elvy and Frankie McMillan) and Ko Aotearoa Tatou: We Are New Zealand (with Michelle Elvy and Paula Morris).

He has twice won the New Zealand Poetry Society’s International Poetry Award, been shortlisted for the Montana poetry awards for Letters to Dr Dee , and won an honour award for The Emerald Encyclopaedia at the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards. The Assassin of Gleam was shortlisted for the Esther Glen Medal and won the Sir Julius Vogel Award. In 2010, The Loblolly Boy also shortlisted for the Esther Glen Award and won the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards Junior Fiction Award.

James has been invited to a number of international poetry festivals and has been awarded a number of residencies including the Burns Fellowship, the Iowa International Writers Programme, the Island of Residencies programme in Tasmania, the University Of Otago College Of Education Creative New Zealand Fellowship for Children’s Writing, and the Randell Cottage Residency.

With Bernadette Hall, he was presented with a Press Literary Liaisons Honour Award for lasting contribution to literature in the South Island and late last year was awarded the 2022 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry and this year the Margaret Mahy Medal.

About Letter to ‘Oumuamua
In this wry and witty collection – addressed to the first interstellar object ever to be detected in our solar system – James Norcliffe applies a cool, clear eye to human life on Earth. Our foibles and absurdities are laid bare, but so too is the human capacity for love, desire, sorrow and regret. Norcliffe’s succinct observations traverse the personal and the political. Grounded in the local but encompassing the global, they range through subjects such as commuting, insomnia and faltering health to the contemplation of current events and issues such as gun violence and climate change. The landscapes and settings of these poems are vividly evoked, often in terms of human impact. Birds, ‘knowing what we are’, take flight at the approach of a person; a coal range is the acknowledged centre of a West Coast family’s survival.
Often very funny, and always deeply felt, Norcliffe’s Letter to ‘Oumuamua describes a world where every day is both everyday gritty, material, bread-and-butter and also luminous and precious: a ‘day like no other’.

There is a dark edge to his wit that rings absolutely true, and his troubadour tongue is as mellifluous as ever. Settle in for the ride. Norcliffeland is waiting.
Joanna Preston

James Norcliffe’s name on a book cover is the nearest you can get these days to a guarantee of quality. Letter to ‘Oumuamua is full of Norcliffe’s characteristic perspective-bending vignettes, yes, but late love poems, climate requiems. And elegiac looks back at a West Coast youth also demand our attention and make us feel. This is work that refuses to sugar-coat.
Erik Kennedy

Excerpted reviews
From Listener review by Nicholas Reid
…his outlook is consistently humane and he is always ready to present humour and levity in the midst of more serious concerns. In his opening poem, he sums up humanity by declaring, “We know what we’re doing/ We’re not all bad. We just can’t help ourselves.” Norcliffe is immersed in how humans think and perceive, how we react to other creatures, how we often go wrong, how we age and decay and – as a corollary – how our flaws are often embedded in our past and our memories of the past. Poems consider climate change and our frequent callousness towards animals. Art and Confusion and Penguin Modern Classics are excellent explorations of how we react to art and literature. The Coal Range and The Granity Museum are outstanding examples of realist poetry, recreating the lives of West Coast toilers. Terrific.

From Kete review by Nicola Stretton
James Norcliffe’s latest poetry collection, Letter to ‘Oumuamua, addresses itself to the first interstellar object identified in our solar system and thus gives Norcliffe the freedom to keenly observe and poke fun at the absurdities of human life on Earth. The collection focuses on several hot issues, including climate change and gun violence, but also makes room for smaller, human reactions: our capacity to put our heads in the sand, to care and to love. In Penguin Modern Classics, a shoutout to those beloved editions, this gem appears:

We cannot help being dog-eared,
fly-spotted and ever so slightly foxed
as you are, dear reader, as you are, even as
the fire goes out and the coffee goes cold.

Norcliffe was recently awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry and this is his 11th collection. With 58 poems in five sections, it explores the human inability to consider every societal issue, and how we focus and fixate on the most immediate before us, ignoring the future. This theme resonates through the collection, especially in Really Hot Soup, the titular poem of section 3, which considers this in detail via extended metaphor. It speaks to the whole work, a polished, clever collection by an accomplished poet.

Questions from Kete interview relating to letters to ‘Oumuamua – full interview here.
Turning to Letter to ‘Oumuamua, how did the idea for this collection develop?
A collection tends to be a reflection of how you’ve been seeing the world over the while you’ve been putting it together, influenced of course by your travels, encounters, and experiences including reading during that time. Specifically, Joan and I spent quite a time in the UK with our daughter and her family, and caught up with a few long lost relatives in England and Scotland. This led to reflections on the various worlds I inhabit and the many threats to them, mainly environmental. You can’t avoid being perturbed by what’s happening to the planet.  I can’t help but be comic-droll at times – it’s in my DNA,  but reading the collection now that it’s between covers I can’t help but be struck by the number of pieces that have an underlying sadness, even alarm.
What did you discover in the course of writing the book that surprised you?
As I was writing the individual pieces they seemed quite a disparate bunch – a wide range of voices and styles and I wasn’t at all sure they would hang together. The surprise was how well they did – how often the poems talked together even between sections. I do like these chimes and echoes.
What proved to be the most challenging element of crafting Letter to ‘Oumuamua?
I think the assembly line was most challenging: ordering the poems and gathering them into sections. In earlier drafts, some of the poems played in a different team altogether. I’m really happy with the way it finally took shape.
And, last question, how do we keep growing readers who turn to their cousins and say, ‘I want to be a poet?’
We need to shower our children with books and read to them. They’ll discover the worlds within and, hopefully, want to visit them themselves.

David Hill’s discussion of this new book on RNZ

Two Poems

Letter to ‘Oumuamua

Dear ‘Oumuamua

This morning I saw a willow tree in first-spring,
flush of green in a paddock full of black, sleeping steers.

It was a prayer in the still air, morning sun and the sea beyond;
nothing to make the new leaves quiver except celebration.

I note you didn’t hang around, dear ‘Oumuamua: one brief
look was all it took before you hoisted your great light sail

and hightailed it out of here. I understand your misgivings,
‘Oumuamua. I have them, too. But it’s, we’re, not all bad really.

A kind farmer allowed this willow to live, give shelter to his cattle
as they wait for the abattoir. That has to be worth something, doesn’t it?

And from this distance the sea is blue and apparently cold, the hills
almost green, the cattle innocent, and the willow celebrating.

I’m not saying come back, dear ‘Oumuamua, we do know what
we’re doing. We’re not all bad. We just can’t help ourselves.


Living in the Goldilocks Zone

We used to enjoy living here.
There were quince trees
and apricots trees blossoming
in our garden. Life was nice.

The lawns were neatly trimmed
and the edges contained.
In the distance was a pleasant
view of a well-behaved ocean.

Of course there was that
ramshackle bach deep in
the woods where the bears lived.
But it was easy to avoid.

We just didn’t go there,
preferring our raised beds,
and the exemplary manners
of beans, carrots and broccoli.

Life, as I said, was nice:
we lived within careful
parameters and had
circumscribed extremes.

We used to enjoy living here
on our pretty little planet.
Porridge was always provided
at the designated time.

But now the lawns are brown
and as dried and crunchy
underfoot as cornflakes;
the carrots droop and shrivel.

And all the bowls: little,
middle-sized and extra-large –
they’re much, much too hot to touch
and every bear is angry.

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