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Phil Kawana Returns to His First Love – Poetry

Media release
14 November 2005

Awardwinning Fiction Writer Phil Kawana Returns to His First Love – Poetry

Writer Phil Kawana (Ngaruahine, Ngati Ruanui, Ngati Kahungunu) has much to say about the injustices of modern Maori urban life and he says it well in his first collection of poems, The Devil in My Shoes (AUP, November 2005, $21.99).

His gentler but courageously honest poems about love, relationships and the internal life provide a good balance for his more outwardly focused poems as he explores through The Devil in My Shoes the life of a whole person in contemporary New Zealand.

Kawana’s childhood, ‘built with ice block sticks’ where ‘Even the dog / was communal’, is the source of the poems’ strong and angry voice confronting political and social injustice: ‘We don’t allow / your kind in the house’, he was told by a friend’s mother at a birthday party.

The collection’s love poems show a natural lyrical impulse and strong patterns of imagery that tie the four sections of this collection together. These contrasts and counterpoints give the poems their distinctive character and their very real strength.

‘I want to change the world / almost as much as my son / wants a new pair of shoes’, writes Kawana, and The Devil in My Shoes expresses the triumphs and frustrations of that attempt.

Born in Taranaki in 1965, he was a precocious reader and has had a deep love of words all his life. He has known he would be a writer since he was seven years old when he began creating poems.

His poetry was first published when he was eight, after his mother sent some poems she had found in one of his notebooks to the community paper in Waverley. He was not impressed.

‘A perfectionist even at that age, I did not think my poetry was ready.’

It has taken over 30 years for this celebrated short fiction writer and performer to publish his own collection.

He included a few poems in one earlier book, Attack of the Skunk People (Huia), and a small selection of his poems appeared in the prizewinning Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, edited by Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan, (Auckland University Press, 2003), which won the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Reference and Anthology.

Phil Kawana’s two previous books are Dead Jazz Guys and Attack of the Skunk People. His stories have been broadcast on National Radio and he has appeared at festivals and in schools. He twice won the Te Kaunihera Maori Award for best short story in English by a Maori Writer in the first Huia Short Story Awards (1995; 1997); was a finalist in 2001 and a judge of those awards in 1999.

Self Portrait

I grew up next to the town dump.
It was my playground, much cooler
than a swimming pool
(though there was always
the dam across the road, if you
felt that way inclined). I found
treasures in what others
threw away. The only trick
was evading the rats
and the yokels who’d hunt them
after downing a slab of DB.

At a friend’s birthday party
his mother stood before me
when everyone else went inside
to eat. ‘We don’t allow
your kind in the house,’
she said. His sister brought
out a disposable plate
with a saveloy and seven chips.
I said thank you and sat
in the garden. I fed the chips
to the sparrows.

The Devil in My Shoes
Phil Kawana
Published by Auckland University Press, assisted by Creative New Zealand; November 2005; $21.99


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