Smither, Elizabeth

Smither, Elizabeth

In Brief

Elizabeth Smither is a poet, novelist and short story writer. Her numerous collections of poetry have been published alongside several novels and short story collections. Her poetic style is considered idiosyncratic while it moves beyond the self-referential into the areas of legendary characters, Catholicism and the workings of language itself. Of her poems she writes, ‘you have to use all your senses to crack them open.’ As well as receiving numerous other awards, Elizabeth Smither was named the 2002 Te Mata Poet Laureate.


Smither, Elizabeth (1941– ), poet, novelist and short story writer, was born in New Plymouth where she works as a librarian.

She has published twelve collections of poems: Here Come the Clouds (1975); You’re Very Seductive William Carlos Williams (1978); The Sarah Train (1980); The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni’s wife (1981); Casanova’s Ankle (1981); Shakespeare Virgins (1983); Professor Musgrove’s Canary (1986); Gorilla/ Guerilla (1986); Animaux (1988); A Pattern of Marching (1989); A Cortège of Daughters (1993); The Tudor Style: Poems New and Selected (1993). There have also been two novels, First Blood (1983) and Brother-love Sister-love (1986); two collections of short stories, Nights at the Embassy (1990) and Mr Fish (1994); a book for children, Tug Brothers (1983); an edition of her journals, The Journal Box (1996); and co-edited with David *Hill The Seventies Connection (1987).

Amongst other awards, she has received the Scholarship in Letters in 1987 and 1992, and A Pattern of Marching won the Poetry Section of the 1990 New Zealand Book Awards.

Smither’s first collection, Here Come the Clouds, published in her mid-30s, at once established her distinctive, even idiosyncratic, poetic manner. The short poem, usually but not always unrhymed, witty, stylish and intellectually curious, has remained her forte, although ‘To Hugh a friend flying to London November 30 DC 10’, a 600-line poem in Professor Musgrove’s Canary, successfully transcends the ordinary limits of her miniaturist technique. As the titles of her collections suggest, literary and legendary figures often provide starting points for poems, a number of which are also characterised by a strong interest in Catholicism. In addition to more perennial subjects, her poetry, though never merely self-referential, celebrates the slipperiness and paradoxical nature of language. She has remarked that the poets she most admires are ‘tough’, citing as examples Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, e. e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, William Empson and John Berryman: ‘They don’t pull any punches; they’re like Humphrey Bogart. You have to use all your senses to crack them open.’ The same comment applies to the best of her own work.

Perhaps because she has been so prolific a poet, Smither’s fiction has tended to remain underrated. Like her poetry, her short stories often make use of a literary motif as a springboard: a phrase from Auden, a literary quiz, an academic’s journal, a replica of Keats’s death mask. The subsequent glimpses into the lives of the characters, usually women, are typified by an ironic sympathy with their ability or inability to deal with the vicissitudes of their relationships with men.

While adumbrating more clearly the strand of Catholicism which runs through her poetry, both Smither’s novels deal with areas central to Pakeha New Zealand experience: early settler days in First Blood and the mixed response of a contemporary New Zealander visiting England in Brother-love Sister-love. The former, set in nineteenth-century New Plymouth, explores the human, social and religious interactions which lead to the new settlement’s first murder when Cassidy, an Irish ex-militia man and itinerant worker, stabs a young widow, Mary McDavitt. Although deliberately omitting some of the more conventional features of the historical novel (there is, for instance, little attempt to imitate the spoken or written idiom of the time), First Blood nonetheless recreates a powerful sense of period and, flickering back and forth between its gallery of characters, builds up an evocative portrait of a small, intricate, vulnerable world. Brother-love Sister-love recounts a trip to England by Isobel, a New Zealand poet, to visit her expatriate brother James. The narrative technique is similar to that of First Blood; a range of viewpoints are played off against each other with Isobel’s as the dominant perspective. The deft satire of Isobel’s adventures among the London literati neatly complements the broader farce of her sculptor husband Angus’s attempts to épater the local bourgeoisie back in New Zealand. The rapid switches from character to character and scene to scene aptly mimic Isobel’s intense, somewhat uneasy reactions to the people and situations she encounters. HRi


Elizabeth Smither is available to talk to intermediate and secondary students. She is prepared to talk about poetry. She would prefer to talk to small groups of less than 15 students and she is able to run workshops. She is prepared to travel out of town for Writers in Schools visits if time permits.

KAPAI: Kids' Authors' Pictures and Information

Where do you live?
New Plymouth

What kinds of books do you like to read?
Novels, thrillers, poetry and books about travel.

Who are your favourite writers?
Thom Gunn and Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Where do you get your ideas?
They usually come when I start writing.

What is the best thing about being a writer?
The pleasure of writing.

Some Special Questions for Primary School
Do you have any pets?
A marmalade cat and Australian terriers.

What is you favourite colour?

Do you have a favourite food?

What’s your favourite movie?
Jules and Jim

What games or sports do you like?

What’s the best part of being an author?
Meeting people and reading to them.

How do you make a book?
With a great deal of effort.

Where do you like to go for your holidays?
Somewhere I haven’t been in New Zealand or overseas.

What was the naughtiest thing you ever did at school?
I brought meat pies for my friends concealed in a big folded up black umbrella.

Some Questions for Secondary School

How did you start writing?

At school, mostly by enjoying English classes.

Who inspired you to start writing?
An English teacher called Miss Stewart.

What advice would you give someone wanting to be a writer?
Realise it is a lifetime job.

Is it hard to make a living as a writer in New Zealand?
Yes, you may need to have another job.

What were you like as a teenager?

Studious, mischievous, and energetic.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?
I have loved writing since I was at primary school and I used to often make up long sentences in my head and say them silently to myself. At high school my English teacher told me I should be a writer and I was so excited I jumped up and down like a Masai warrior on the sports field before going back to class.


Elizabeth Smither received the Lilian Ida Smith Award in 1989. In 1990, A Pattern of Marching won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.

Smither has published a third collection of short stories, The Mathematics of Jane Austen (1997), and a further volume of poetry, The Lark Quartet (1999). The Lark Quartet won the Montana Award for Poetry at the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

She was named the Te Mata Poet Laureate in 2002. Administered by the National Library of New Zealand and funded by the New Zealand Government, the Poet Laureate is selected biennially and receives an award of $50,000 per year.

Listening to the Everly Brothers and Other Stories (2002). Love, romance and relationships, with an array of brilliantly drawn characters. Stephen Stratford writes '...this is as good a collection as we'll get. Thoroughly, resoundingly recommended.'

The Sea Between Us (2003) is a novel which explores the differences between Australia and New Zealand. A thread of impetuous short-lived anger runs through the lives of the Berryman family: 'there are eight sisters, but only four of us who count. I don't think I can love more than four.' The Sea Between Us was a finalist in the fiction category of the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

Her novel Different Kinds of Pleasure (Penguin, 2006) looks at what pleasure is and how it shapes people's lives.

Smither's collection of short stories The Girl Who Proposed (Cape Catley Ltd, 2008) was on the longlist for the 2008 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

In 2007, Smither released two collections of poetry, The Year of Adverbs (Auckland University Press), and Horse Playing the Accordion (Ahadada books)

In 2008, Elizabeth Smither was awarded the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry, worth $60,000.

Her most recent work is Lola, published by Penguin in 2010. After the death of loved ones, Lola Dearborn devotes her life to exploration, taking up residence in an art-deco hotel, befriending a group of musicians, reflecting on different kinds of love -- with an Italian undertaker who buries a dog with its owner, and a retired surgeon with a disruptive daughter. The work is a meditation on the exploration of love, death, music and friendship.

Elizabeth Smither was interviewed by David Hill in the anthology, Words Chosen Carefully, edited by Siobhan Harvey (Cape Catley Ltd, 2010). Her collection, The Blue Coat was published by Auckland University Press in 2013.

Smither was awarded the 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature.


Updated January 2017.