Life of a woman poet 1977–2020

Two poetry books by Rachel McAlpine. Stay at the dinner party (old and worn, purple with yellow dots) and How To be Old (new, yellow and pink and blue-green).
Two stages in the life of a woman poet, me. Activism in 1977 and 2020. Today, strong support from my publisher.

Today I’m reminded of huge changes in my life as a woman poet over 45 years. From reluctant publisher to supportive publisher. From careless printing to fastidious printing. From no promotion to brilliant promotion.

At a fundraiser for Rape Crisis this afternoon I’m going to read from Stay At The Dinner Party, published in 1977. I can’t help seeing one similarity with my latest book, How to Be Old — bright bold legible cover — and huge differences in quality and support. I still love those poems! They’re real, they’re revolutionary, they’re scary. Which was a problem for some.

You see Stay At The Dinner Party was my second poetry book to be published by Trevor Reeves of Caveman (yes, Caveman!?) Press. He was a genuine publishing hero who loved poetry. But this was 1977, and the poems expressed my “strident feminist” convictions. (In those days every feminist was called either “strident” or “not a feminist”. I was called both.)

I really really needed that book to be available for the third United Women’s Convention in Christchurch. I’m told that was the one and only manuscript Trevor ever subcontracted to another publisher — who messed up spectacularly.

  • Slack: they left it too late to be typeset (no computers or PDFs or internet in 1977) — so I saved the day by writing out the entire book in ghastly handwriting which they then printed.
  • Bad binding: it’s the only one of my 13-odd poetry books that has fallen to bits.
  • Surely one of the crassest failings in New Zealand’s publishing history: instead of my own photo on the back cover, there was Barney Brewster, a male author! (He was a friend, as it happened. Small country.) So I made a cardboard template, experimented, and found that nail polish remover also removed printer’s ink. My four children and I literally rubbed out Barney’s face from every copy.
  • Distribution: I deduce that all the books came directly to me instead of to bookstores, because I’ve never seen a copy where the photo was still intact. So I deduce that I did all the distribution — could be wrong.

The upside: I took the box of books to the United Women’s Convention in Christchurch. There it was received with excitement and relief. Women needed poems by women. The book sold out. I was telling stories of New Zealand women in the mid 20th century, not my own personal (white, educated, over-privileged) story.

Feminism in 1977: listen to me pretty please?

Re-reading the poems—some of which are rough as guts—I have to wonder why this particular book happened to be a big fail for the legendary Caveman Press. Where my first book was sad and tortured, this one was furious in a sly way. The poems seem to say, “I’m just a poor little woman with no rights but I would really like to be heard, you know, just a wee bit please, pretty please… and if you carry on ignoring me, you better watch out!”

That was me playing my part in New Zealand’s second wave of feminism. The “women’s lib” movement in New Zealand accomplished a terrific lot (look it up). Above all, we started a massive and necessary national consciousness raising. The weird discombobulation of our lives as women started to make sense. The feminist movement of the ’70s was a new beginning, 45-odd years ago.

Some battles are never over or we wouldn’t need Rape Crisis in our world. But I look at my latest book and see how far publishers have come in accepting women writers. To think that in 1973, The Young New Zealand Poets included 19 male and one female writer. I can’t imagine that happening now. Even by 2009, another anthology, Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets included eight women. It seems like only yesterday that publishers would routinely say, “We’d love to publish more women poets, but unfortunately most of them write drivel about women’s feelings and domestic stuff.”

Women-friendly publishers

The Cuba Press publishing team is two women and one man: Mary McCallum, Sarah Bolland and Paul Stewart. Every word in every poem was pored over and discussed. It’s beautifully designed, printed and bound. The company is not Caveman (again, !?) but Cuba Press. (We’re not in Cuba, but Cuba Street is close.) I get superb support from the company in every way. Their work in promoting my new book amazes me, even a year after publication. The world of publishing is perhaps even more difficult than in 1977 but they sail through and work their butts off for their authors.

You won’t find Stay At The Dinner Party in your local bookstore. And I’d be surprised if you can find one secondhand, as they are so breakable. But you will find How To Be Old in New Zealand bookstores or online. The two books are in the same tradition but this one targets ageism rather than sexism, and is both funnier and kinder. Even poets tend to mellow as the decades pass. But trust me, the life of a woman poet is long and I am far from done.

14 thoughts on “Life of a woman poet 1977–2020

  1. judibwriting says:

    Congrats on your long career and for being a “strident feminist” breaking the path for the rest of us.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thanks Judi! Longevity has brought benefits and long term insights.

  2. That’s such an interesting look at your experience with Caveman versus Cuba. A great tribute to the passion of the Mary and the Cuba Press team. And not having your author photo on the back, but some chap… Crikey. Great story. XX

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Pretty funny, ay?

  3. Sadje says:

    Very impressive Rachel. I hope you can get your first book reprinted. People need to read it today and tomorrow.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Ah no, it’s a little pocket of history now.

      1. Sadje says:


  4. Jennifer Holdaway says:

    Good bit of writing Rachel – an interesting history to know. Thank you. x

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      This when someone should say, Plus ca change, plus ca ne change pas, or something 🙂

  5. djmwrites says:

    This is a great war story of an emerging poet. Great for recounting at dinner parties and public talks.😁 I love your take on ageism and it is an important societal issue now more than ever. We are swiftly outnumbering younger people!!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I agree– I look back and am gobsmacked by it myself. And I have the artefact to flourish in support of the story. It was lovely to read with three younger poets today. The eldest is less than half my age. They are all valiant women and good poets.

  6. Alan Ralph says:

    I found a copy of Stay At The Dinner Party for sale on AbeBooks UK, but as it’ll be coming over from New Zealand the shipping is only slightly less than the cost of the book. 🙁

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Golly, good sleuthing. For that reason I sometimes sell copies of How To Be Old free of shipping costs to people outside New Zealand. A small book of poems can be sent by a letter, but stores of any sort can’t do it that way for many reasons. Luckily I’m not asked often!

  7. ‘some of which are rough as guts’ I like the sound of this….if I’ve interpreted it in the right way

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