Writers Talk — Dinah Hawken

Posted on Jul 31, 2013 | Comments Off on Writers Talk — Dinah Hawken

 Dinah HawkenI’ve know and loved Dinah’s work ever since I picked up her first collection, probably at Unity Books,  sometime in the 80s in Auckland.  

 What comes first?

Different poems have different beginnings. Some poems arise from a feeling — say joy, anger, sadness — in response to something I see, read or something that is happening in my life. The poem is fuelled by the feeling but the actual starting point itself is almost always a phrase or a line that comes into my mind and appeals. (Often when I’m walking or writing in my journal.) For example I have a friend with early onset Alzheimers and a line that kept coming back to me, after visiting her, was ‘flowers mean nothing to her now’ and I knew it was a possibility for a poem. A number of poems I have written have been commissioned; for example a poem for the Parihaka Exhibition, or more recently poems about stones. Then I might do a lot of reading and thinking before and during the time of writing — which might be several months. Occasionally I have an intuitive attraction to a certain form, or line length, and that might start me off. I know what I want the poem to look like on the page, before I know what it is going to be, but usually the form comes later during the writing.


No I don’t plan a poem beforehand, apart from sometimes doing the research I’ve mentioned above when I’ve been given a theme. A large part of the joy of writing for me is the surprise and spontaneity of the process itself. I think you can tell a poem that is too thought-out: there is a predictability or dullness about it. I also enjoy the hard craft of shaping, accuracy, editing: the problem-solving aspect of poetry.


I work best when I have a writing routine. At the moment I write four mornings a week and I begin by doing Tai Chi Chuan for half an hour or so beforehand. It seems to put me into a calm, open kind of state that seems very helpful for writing. Sometimes I write in my journal beforehand as well and that often sparks language or ideas. At the end of a poem I often seem to end up with a search on my hands for a particular word or line. Then it’s often good to go for a walk on the beach and muse.


I haven’t had too many rejections of individual poems but I have had two nasty reviews of individual books. Because my poetry feels strongly connected with who I am I‘ve felt misunderstood by the reviews, especially the last one where the reviewer really seemed to loathe my work. I found that quite mystifying. However most reviews have been good and I really appreciate those where the reviewer understands what’s going on and sometimes sees more behind the poems than I’m conscious of. As writers we’re all at different levels and I’ve come to realize that those I think of as very successful, don’t necessarily think of themselves as successful, because they’re uncertain too and judge themselves by different standards. However there is nothing like recognition, whatever and wherever we’re up to.


I was living in New York when my first two poems were published in the Listener and though I was thrilled I felt a bit removed. The big moment for me was when, back in Wellington, I heard that VUP had accepted my first manuscript of poems for publication. It was something I could never have imagined earlier in my life, being a quiet girl from Taranaki, and so it was unbelievably exciting. That book also won the first best book section of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and, perhaps surprisingly, I wasn’t delighted but daunted at the thought of expectations and any kind of public attention. That was the quiet girl from Taranaki too.