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Vincent O’Sullivan: 1937–2024

Today we are thinking with love and gratitude of the extraordinary Vincent O'Sullivan – poet, novelist, playwright, scholar – who died yesterday in Dunedin, aged 86.

Born in Auckland in 1937, Vincent O’Sullivan was one of Aotearoa's leading writers, acclaimed for his poetry, plays, short stories, and novels, which include Let the River Stand, Believers to the Bright Coast, and All This by Chance. He was joint editor with Margaret Scott of the internationally acclaimed five-volume Letters of Katherine Mansfield, edited a number of major anthologies, and was the author of widely praised biographies of John Mulgan and Ralph Hotere. He taught at Waikato University and Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, and was the New Zealand poet laureate for 2013–2015. In 2000, Vincent was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2021 he was redesignated as a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Vincent O'Sullivan in 2001

Vincent published many books with Te Herenga Waka University Press, beginning with the publication of his play Shuriken in 1985 and including the Montana Award–winning poetry collection Nice Morning For It, Adam, the Ockham–shortlisted novel All This by Chance, a Selected Poems, and the story collection Mary's Boy, Jean-Jacques. As our publisher, Fergus Barrowman, said on Radio New Zealand this morning, 'The breadth of his talent was extraordinary.'

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In 2007, on the occasion of Vincent's 70th birthday, twenty-eight of his friends, colleagues and fellow writers published the festschrift Still Shines When You Think of It. 'A portrait emerges of O'Sullivan as a writer who is honest and respectful with the characters and subjects that inhabit his writing,' wrote reviewer Sarah-Jane Barnett, 'but also of a man who has contributed to literature through his generosity of friendship, humour and support he affords other writers.'

It was a privilege and a joy to work with Vincent, and we will miss him. His last book is Still Is, a new collection of poems, published in June 2024.


You won’t mind my asking?

Not to look for the stories behind our stories,
or they’ll not be stories. Even less so,
Fact, with its hooping wires,
plots on standing still.
Yet it’s memory fingers
the spring swings gates to such freedom.

That is how things are. Don’t predict us,
reader, and we’ll do our job. Even a bee,
thank Christ, makes its jazzy errors.
Every breeze breaks new, such
games as we play them.

Yet the tangle of lines we so love, the sort gifting
us space. Space that is never elsewhere,
only ours to entice. Out-tangling fact let’s call
it. What flings from here.

—The final poem in Still Is, sent to us on 27 March 2024

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