Lockdown poetry springs up around Auckland CBD

12:13 pm on 25 November 2020

While economists and city leaders debate Auckland's economic recovery, poets have quietly stamped their prophesies on the city.

Michael Andrew's words on a utility box next to a building site.

Michael Andrew's words on a utility box next to a building site. Photo: Supplied

Poetry written during the nationwide lockdown is being inscribed on utility boxes dotted around Auckland's CBD.

The normally drab metal boxes, now a canvas for literature, are used to house controls for traffic lights.

"Our future's forming

out of old dreams:

I swear I saw

Robbie's eyes gleam."

Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod's poem.

Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod's poem. Photo: Supplied

So reads Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod's poem on a utility box near the statue of former mayor Sir Dove-Myer Robinson in Aotea Square, providing passersby with a different kind of headline.

The poem is about Sir Dove-Myer's 1960s vision for the City Rail Link but it is also a message of hope during a pandemic.

"I hope that they see the word 'future'. Our future is forming. The city will go on and art has a way of inspiring us and lifting us out of our current circumstances," she said.

Kirkby-McLeod's poem is among seven chosen for display on utility boxes around the city.

Knowing the creative sector was in need of a boost, Auckland business association Heart of the City put the call out for writers to submit their work for the installation - and received more than 200 submissions.

In downtown Auckland, ongoing roadworks have become part of city lore.

Michael Andrew.

Michael Andrew. Photo: supplied

Journalist Michael Andrew's poem is nestled among the road cones and diggers on the corner of Custom and Queen Streets.

"Take time, listen to the Waihorotiu valley.

Its heart beats louder than earthworks,

Swells larger than a ribcage of cranes."

The utility box his poem is displayed on has since been damaged by those very roadworks.

Andrew said as nearby businesses battle the loss of international tourists and shops close, the land remains the same.

"The roadworks and earthworks have had a terrible effect on the local businesses, coupled with the lockdowns it's been a disaster and there's so many for lease signs," he said.

"The poem itself was reaching a little beyond that. Beyond all the economics and beyond the business side of things it's still this natural valley at it's core and that's what takes precedence over everything."

Heart of the City offered the seven poets a prize of $500 each - arguably the best per-word rate on offer in a year of cancelled writing festivals and book launches.

Author Mandy Hager is president of the New Zealand Society of Authors and said the installation gives Auckland City a heart.

"A city runs the risk of just being seen as a financial centre whereas it can be a centre for all people in all ways. So it's like you've got these tiny little moments of pause and beauty that can really change your day."

But the writing sector is in strife.

Creative New Zealand awarded more than 2500 emergency relief grants to the creative sector for those who lost income during the lockdown - but of those, only 60 work in literature.

Two of the country's creative writing courses folded at the end of last year - including the country's longest running course at Whitireia - where Hager tutored.

"Writers are seen as just quietly getting on with the job but if you don't have the opportunity to top up your income by speaking events and festivals that starts to get very anxiety inducing," she said.

"We're going to see a real impact down the trail from that because we won't have people looking at things in new ways and tackling issues creatively and asking questions and pushing boundaries. Those are the things that creative people do for a society."

In response, memberships to the society of authors have increased as the organisation lobbies to improve writers' incomes.

"Having the literature of people that live in your nation helps to enrich your nation and helps us to figure out who we are as people and what separates us from other people and cultures in the world. It's absolutely vital and it's been gutting to see the loss of creative writing programmes," Hager said.

"We're lobbying on a number of quite crucial issues at the moment and we have a huge list of things that we think could really increase the support for our sector."

Figures from Auckland's economic development agency show the creative sector employs 53,000 people in the region, representing five percent of regional economy.

A survey conducted at the tail end of the nationwide lockdown found close to 20 percent of those working in the creative sector were not confident they'd still be working in the creative sector in six months' time.

Kirkby-McLeod was due to speak at the Auckland Writers Festival about her debut book of poetry when the lockdown cancelled gatherings.

"We're not going to see some people returning to the arts after this period because it's just going to have been too hard, they'll have lost too much and be expected to survive on too little."

She said the government needs to do more to help writers thrive.

Andrew said the written word has never been more important as a powerful tool to communicate new ideas.

"Although the industry has its woes and it might be hard for people I definitely think it's not going to suffer for long, especially for poets there will be some kind of resurgence."