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Interview: Helen Rickerby talks about How to Live

Helen Rickerby is the winner of the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry for her book, How to Live.

'How to Live names, excavates and exhumes both silenced and previously muffled women. There is a power in naming them and exploring their stories, like a poetic version of war memorials dotted throughout our cities and regions, villages. In doing so, these women get an identity, a voice, and an intergenerational existence. This collection of poetry demands much of us: to move, to discover, to challenge, to chastise, to entertain, to teach, to dare and to awaken…It doesn’t back down from a societal lesson that, unfortunately, still needs repeating, and often,' said the category judges.

Helen Rickerby talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about How to Live.

It’s my poetic exploration of how one should or could live – me using poetry to think through philosophical and ethical ideas, writing about my own experiences and the lives of other people – mostly women from history, but also quite a few of my friends. I think of many of these poems as essay poems, and most of them are prose poems. There are a few that are usual one-page poem length, but there are also some very very long poems.

What inspired you to write this collection of poetry?

I started a collection with this title over a decade ago, but it was going to be very different. My husband had cancer – he’s fine now, but it was quite a big deal for us at the time. That experience, and some other things that were going on at the time, made me think a lot about how I wanted to live – something I think I’ll keep on thinking about for the rest of my life. Anyway, I wrote quite a lot of poems about that time, and our experiences – of the cancer, of the hospital system, and the things I was thinking about. Later, I didn’t think the poems were actually very good, but they did capture something I wanted to keep. I ended up chopping them up and kind of recycling them into a new, long poem, with the same title as the collection, which ends the book. I wove these pieces in with other experiences and notes and quotes from writers and philosophers, and I ended up writing the poem I wanted to, but didn’t know how to.

What research was involved?

While a few of the poems are just out of my head, I did a lot of research for many of them. Particularly the biographical poems, and especially for ‘George Eliot: A Life – A Deconstructed Biography’, which is by far the longest poem in the book. I read several biographies of George Eliot, books about her work, novels she wrote, books about people she knew, and lots of web pages. It was a slow process writing that poem, and not an especially poetic process in many ways. It was less inspiration, and more slog. It was a different way of writing for me. I averaged about a paragraph a day on that poem I think.

What was your routine or process when writing this collection?

I don’t really have a set routine – and often it’s different for each poem. I am rarely a writer who sits down every day to write – though I was able to do for a while when I got a grant from Creative NZ to work on this book, which made it possible for me to take time out of paid work for about six months. It was during that time I wrote ‘George Eliot’ – I don’t think I could have done it otherwise. If I have a process, it’s probably starting by reading something and then thinking about it (and I did a lot of reading and thinking in that six months too). I let things sit for a while, and feel like I’m making a bit of space in the centre of my brain, which is where the creativity happens – where you have ideas you didn’t know you had, and when you can write things you didn’t know you could write. The first and last two poems in the book had a similar process, which was kind of collecting things – writing little notes in my journal, and then, over a very long period of time, connecting the fragments and putting them with other fragments so they could talk to each other and resonate with each other.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Gosh, that’s an interesting question, and not something I have thought about before. While I was working on this book, I would often play ‘Spem In Alium’ by Thomas Tallis (also known as the 40-voice motet) because I found it quite calming, especially because I first came across it in a really wonderful art installation they had at Wellington’s City Gallery a few years ago. So perhaps that? Or maybe a song from PJ Harvey’s album Is This Desire?, which is all about women – perhaps ‘The Wind’…

What did you enjoy the most about writing this poetry collection?

When something I’d been working on for a long time finally fell into place. The first poem, ‘Notes on the Unsilent Woman’, and the last poem, ‘How to Live’, were both a bit like that. They’re long and I’d written lots of pieces for them, but it wasn’t until quite late that I got the form and then the tone right, and then I knew what work I needed to do to get them exactly how I wanted them. It’s quite a lovely feeling when you manage to write the poem you hoped you’d write, but didn’t know how to.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I don’t really remember, except that I gave it to a couple of friends, Anna and Angelina, to read and to give me feedback. At a couple of points in writing this book I felt like giving up, but the idea of Anna and Angelina reading it motivated me to keep going – I was partly writing it for them. Fortunately they both loved it, and I did follow some advice to take a few poems out and move a few around.

You have recently won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.

Congratulations! What was that experience like?

It was quite nuts! We were still in lockdown, so the awards ceremony was moved online and I watched it in our lounge with my bubble mates (Sean, my partner, and our friend Angelina, who now lives downstairs). I did get a bit dressed up in the colours of my book (black and gold) and we were all wearing gold eyeshadow. I was actually quite shocked to win, so there was quite a lot of yelling and a bit of sobbing (mostly from me), and then I had to immediately go and log into a video call to deliver my speech – there were a few technical issues, so I ended up giving only about a third of my prepared speech (you can read the whole thing here: It was the first time they’d ever done the anything like this, so it was great it went as smoothly as it did. Afterwards was a little bit of an anti-climax, because of course there was no party – though I did get a lot of very lovely messages and phone calls. I ended the evening drinking a glass of wine and talking to a friend in Singapore, as everyone else had gone to bed.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I think my absolute favourite book so far this year is The Crying Book by Heather Christle. It is a non-fiction book, but it straddles the line between memoir, essay and poetry. It is all about crying – crying in literature, the science of crying, crying in history, crying in the life of the narrator. It was comforting, informative and beautifully written.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Writing-wise, I’ve been very slowly working on a new poetry project, which I think will take some time. I’m not yet sure if it will be one long poem or several, but will, I hope, be about doubt, gaps, translation, misunderstandings and love. But during the lockdown, like many creative people I know, I veered off my usual track and I wrote a lot of short pieces for a collaborative blog project about music that was on the New Zealand charts in 1990 and 1991 (a lot of the music was quite bad, but there are a few gems), and my memories of that time. That was a much faster kind of writing, and a way of communicating with a very small audience of a few friends, but maybe I’ll do something with some of those pieces, make them into something else.

How to Live is published by Auckland University Press

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