Applauding New Zealand women poets on International Women’s Day

A battered copy of Private Gardens, anthology of New Zealand Women Poets edited by Riemke Ensing
My battered copy of the 1977 anthology of NZ women poets, Private Gardens

So it’s International Women’s Day today, and I’m applauding the progress that women poets—in New Zealand and elsewhere—have made in my lifetime. I am so lucky to have been part of this.

How things changed for women poets in New Zealand

In 1974 a big, popular anthology called The Young New Zealand Poets contained one (1, i) solitary female poet, Jan Kemp. The editor justified this by describing submissions from women in these terms: reasonably competent—two-dimensional—cliched and overly sentimental—little control over their craft—cathartic —exorcistic. Yeah, you read that right. This attitude was considered acceptable at the time: at the time several publishers and academics uttered similar opinions to me in person, as objective facts, without a hint of self-doubt. And of course the publishing industry was dominated by men.

1975 was International Women’s Year, and there was sufficient public discourse in advance to alert publishers to the the idea that perhaps they ought to at least consider women poets as contenders. Some, like Trevor Reeves of Caveman Press, were positively enthusiastic and looked for new women poets to publish. So in 1975 nine NZ women poets had their first collections published, including my doleful and stroppy Lament for Ariadne.

Auckland poet Riemke Ensing was excited by the concept of International Women’s Year and began working on the anthology of New Zealand women poets that became Private Gardens. It was published in 1977. What a day! What excitement! How marvellous to meet fellow poets including Lauris Edmond and Fiona Kidman and of course Riemke herself. Her work seemed heroic to me then and it still does. My copy of Private Gardens, battered and broken, is a treasure.

Thank you Riemke!

Book Private Gardens broken to show multiple pages including a signed title page and page 1 of the TOC
Private Gardens‘ spine is broken. It breaks at these pages.

Sam Hunt’s role in the women’s movement (yes really)

I’ve got a soft spot for Sam Hunt. He has been one of our few really popular poets for most of his life. Yes, he called women poets “squawkers” in the ’70s and yes, he gave me his personal opinion that women poets were all either very very good or very very bad. On the other hand, he strongly encouraged me and a bunch of other women to keep writing. And his comments about very very bad fired me up to write hard and fill that empty slot for OK poets, average poets.

Sam visited the school I was teaching at, and stayed with us in Masterton. Here’s an historic photo of Sam Hunt and me at a barbecue with my family in the Wairarapa. I reckon this was 1973 or 1974.

Man standing bare chested drinking beer. woman in flared jeans barbecuing paua (?) patties. Wild grasslands and sea and rocks in the distance.
Sam Hunt (1973–74) at a family barbecue with Rachel McAlpine in the Wairarapa

Women poets today in New Zealand

Women have a long long way to go before feminism can have a cup of tea and a lie down. But as far as poetry is concerned—look how far we’ve come! To check out our gains, go to any open mic night or open any anthology of women poets and there we are. For a deeper exploration, read Paula Green‘s wondrous survey and analysis, Wild Honey: reading New Zealand women poets.

11 thoughts on “Applauding New Zealand women poets on International Women’s Day

  1. Myra Kitchenman says:

    Happy International Womens Day dear Rachel. That was my school too…St.Brides….I remember him coming to school…. do you still have Sam’s jacket? Mxhugx

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Oh I remember — I made him a parchwork jacket! (I already had two parchwork skirts!)

      1. Rachel McAlpine says:


  2. You are a national treasure Rachel. I have long admired your long-standing place in Aotearoa’s poetry landscape.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well I did at least achieve my far more modest ambition of filling that gap 🙂 Now I watch multitudes of brilliant women step on to the stage.

  3. Sadje says:

    Fantastic post Rachel! Women have been given the recognition they deserve, finally.

  4. I remember Private Gardens from an MA paper I did with Patrick Evans in the 90s on the politics of publishing poetry. Interesting that it had to be ‘validated’ by an ‘afterword’ by Vincent O’Sullivan!! Perhaps part of the bargaining with the publisher. So much analysis possible in the design of the cover. Speaking of MA – why Master of Arts still?? and Bachelor of Arts?? Time for a name change. I loved Wild Honey and highly recommend it.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I wish we could discuss all these points at length in person — all still relevant and in 2021 even more obvious. Thanks for raising them.

  5. A very good point about the B and M in Arts. Yet another thing that is taken for granted. Definitely time for change.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So weird that even now we use the terms Bachelor and Master of Arts. Even for men they are seriously weird and classist…

  6. Elizabeth says:

    I had to laugh at the swagger in that poet as you sit demurely fully clothed.

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