Bluff poet Cilla McQueen was the New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2009–2011. McQueen has published 14 volumes of poetry, including a letterpress book and a CD collection, and has won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry three times. Her first collection, Homing In, also won the 1983 Jessie MacKay Award. McQueen has held the University of Otago’s Burns Fellowship, a Fulbright Visiting Writers’ Fellowship, and in 1991 was awarded the Scholarship in Letters. Her habit of keeping a diary has shaped much of her work, which approaches life as a mixture of moments, casual acquaintances and intimate confessions.
FROM THE oxford companion TO new zealand literature
McQueen, Cilla (1949 –), poet, born in Birmingham, England, arrived in New Zealand in 1953. She was educated at Dunedin’s Columba College and University of Otago (MA Hons 1970). She has taught French and English, and currently teaches part-time. She is accomplished and popular as a performer of her poetry.
Writing poetry developed out of McQueen’s habit of keeping a diary, which explains its approach to life as a rich mixture of days, moments, casual acquaintances, intimate confessions and occasional shopping lists: ‘One Marmite one coffee one flour. One / fine day with or without frost’ (‘The Shopping’). Despite its eclecticism, certain characteristics recur. She writes of the Otago region with an intensity reminiscent of Ruth Dallas or James K. Baxter, yet with a unique personal perspective on these landscapes ‘that we trample / or stroke with our toes or eat or lick / tenderly or pull apart’ (‘Living Here’).
McQueen has published five volumes: Homing In (1982)—which was awarded the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry and the Jessie MacKay Award 1983; Anti Gravity (1984); Wild Sweets (1986); Benzina (1988)—New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, 1989; Berlin Diary (1990)—New Zealand Book Award for Poetry 1991; and Crïk´ey: New and Selected Poems (1993).
These collections confirm the consistency of McQueen’s talent. Never one for rigid forms, her work has a linguistic exuberance and inventiveness. She is capable of using the present tense dramatically and employing a direct syntax that creates pace or immediacy: ‘I look up from walking at / a shy grey heron on / the point of flight’ (‘Low Tide, Aramoana’). The same devices generate intimacy in poems that may deal with domestic life, fantasy, memory or history.
Nor does McQueen’s poetry want for humour. ‘The Dream of Jenny Shipley’ satirises the politics of the then Minister of Health: ‘And Jenny squeals with delight / As the small green roll-on roll-off ferry / jumps right out onto the road, sturdy little thing, / Like a man with no legs jumping out of a wheelchair.’
Other poems draw distinctively on modern science, generating tension when science’s analytical perspective meets the poet’s idiosyncratic view, the finite mind’s attempt to impose order on the infinite universe. ‘Quark Dance’, for example, suggests the absurdity of scientific investigation, and delights in the world of subatomic particles: ‘here come the colours / to settle on our lips and eyes / and rainbow lighting all the edges’. One symbol that she has made her own is the ‘meniscus’: ‘See, Ben, the water / has a strong soft skin, / and all the insects dance / and jump about on it’ (‘To Ben, At the Lake’). The proposition behind her ‘meniscus’ poetry is that if this barrier (at times permeable and at others impenetrable) fails to hold, chaos results.
McQueen’s recent poetry has an experimental edge, and Berlin Diary represents a major departure. Based on diary entries from 1988, the lengthy work combines sequences of poetry and prose, further developing the idea of the meniscus, the barrier that then separated Berlin’s opposing worlds.
Crïk´ey: New and Selected Poems contains sixty-one poems from four previous books, selections from Berlin Diary, seventeen new poems and two new passages of prose, clearly demonstrating the development of McQueen’s writing since Homing In’s spectacular debut.
McQueen has held the University of Otago’s Burns Fellowship, 1985–86; a Fulbright Visiting Writers’ Fellowship 1985 and the Scholarship in Letters, 1991.
Note on the Companion Entry:
Cilla McQueen received her M.A. Hons. from Otago University in 1971.
Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature,
edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998).
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Cilla McQueen has won three New Zealand Book Awards for Poetry: for Homing In (1983, shared jointly with Allen Curnow), Benzina (1989), and Berlin Diary (1981).
She was the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in Dunedin in 1985 and 1986.
Her first collection of new work after 1990 was Markings (2000), a collection of poetry and drawings. The poems trace the lives and voyages of her ancestors, and the living history of her husband's people. She travels through the fire that destroys her house at Otakou to a new home in Bluff, tying together the separate threads of her journey and moving from one harbour to another.
A selection of McQueen's poems and drawings, Axis, was published in 2001. Drawing on five out-of-print collections, Homing In, Anti Gravity, Wild Sweets, Benzina, and Crik'ey, it brings together some of her best-known poems of the previous 20 years.
Her ninth book of poetry Soundings (2002) explores, with poetry and drawings, the experiences of both the colonised and coloniser.
A Wind Harp (2006) brings together work from twenty years of performance and publication, with poems selected from three of McQueen's books: Axis (2001), Markings (2000), and Soundings (2002). A Wind Harp features the voice and lyrics of Cilla McQueen, supported by original music from Dunedin musicians, The Blue Neutrinos.
Fire-Penny (University of Otago Press, 2005) is her tenth volume of poetry.
McQueen has been represented in most anthologies of New Zealand poetry since the early 1980s. Her words have been incorporated in paintings by the artist Ralph Hotere and in musical compositions by David Farquar, Gillian Whitehead and Anthony Ritchie.
McQueen was awarded a Hon. Litt D. by Otago University in 2008.
She has been named New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2009-2011. 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.
Cilla McQueen's collection The Radio Room was published by Otago University Press in 2010. The volume of poetry was a finalist in the Poetry category of the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Awards.
She has recently published An Island, a handprinted letterpress limited edition produced by Mirrorcity Press (2014) and Edwin’s Egg and Other Poetic Novellas (Otago University Press, 2014). Edwin's Egg started as a writing project developed by Cilla McQueen while Poet Laureate and it was originally published in chapters as Serial on the Poet Laureate website.
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Cilla McQueen is available for writer visits as part of the Book Council's Writers In Schools programme.
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