A Small and Well-formed Scene

On March 13, we are going to Palmerston North. We’ll be reading in the New Zealand section of the mighty Palmerston North City Library, from 6.00pm but you can come along for refreshments from 5.30pm.

We feel really excited that local writers Tim Upperton and Helen Lehndorf will also be there. Tim will be reading and Helen will be chairing the event.


Helen Lehndorf

Helen’s first collection of poetry, The Comforter, was published by Seraph Press in  2012. She is the Massey Visiting Literary Artist for 2013. Helen’s blog is a great showcase of her writing and art.


Tim Upperton

Tim’s poems are published in the New Zealand Listener, Sport, Landfall and other places. His first collection of poetry, A House on Fire: Poems, was published by Steele-Roberts in 2009. He blogs at A Spurred Word which includes a link to an ebook sampler of A House on Fire.

Recently, I sent them some questions about what it’s like to be a writer in Palmerston North. Their replies are below.

What’s the best thing about being a writer in Palmerston North?

Helen: The scene is small but well-formed and it’s a supportive scene. For a smaller city, we have a lot of literary events. Also, I have done my best thinking in Palmerston North, so it clearly inspires me in a way I can’t quite explain.  The sunsets are awesome – it’s a big sky town. The big orange skies make me feel like writing poetry. (Not poetry about big orange skies, however.)

Tim: I remember an episode of Outrageous Fortune where a shady character returns to West Auckland after a long period of having to lie low. Where did he go to lie low? Palmerston North. The local paper sometimes asks people on the street what they like best about living in Palmerston North, and they nearly always reply, “It’s really easy to get around, and no trouble to find a park!” But why is it no trouble to find a park? What does this suggest? These questions are not asked. So that’s how Palmerston North looks, to people who don’t live here, and to people who do: a place of exile, and there’s always a parking space when you need one. I like it here. If it sometimes feels like the hinterland, a bit, that’s no bad place for a writer to be.

What’s the most exciting thing that’s happening in Palmerston North at the moment book/reading/writing-wise?

Helen: Johanna Aitchison lives here, too. She is a terrific poet and my friend and she is nearly finished her third book. I’ve read some of the new poems and I think it’s going to be a terrific, take-no-prisoners book. That’s very exciting. I’m in a writing group with her and Wellingtonian Emma Barnes. We jokingly call ourselves ‘The Renegade Pirate Laydeez From Hell’. With a name like that, how could I not be excited?

Tim: There are a lot of writers here, especially for a town of this size, and the ones I know belong to one writing group or another. The library is a common meeting place: there have been lots of book launched there over the last year or so, including Helen’s first collection of poems. I’m looking forward to you three coming.

We’re having the event in Palmerston North City library – do you have a favourite PNC Library story? Is it important to you as a writer to have a public library close by?

Helen: I have so many highlights! Our library is superb and is amazingly supportive of writers and literary events. I’ve been involved with heaps of the events at the library and I worked there for a year, too.

My favourite library moments would be Johanna Aitchison’s interview of Emma Barnes when Emma was a guest poet at the library. Johanna’s questions were fast and relentless, but no match for Emma’s quick wit and intelligence. It was unforgettable.

Also, I got to ‘support’ Bill Manhire once which was a writing-life highlight for me as I have loved his work since I was a teenager…and after I read, he patted me on the back in a kindly way. That’s right, folks, I have been patted with the hand of Bill Manhire.

Also, Irish poet Iggy McGovern visited once and was completely charming and brilliant.

Also, a bunch of us did a tribute poetry reading for Hone Tuwhare after his death – it was very intimate and moving.

Finally, launching my book there in December 2011. I stood in a circle of fairy lights to read and was so happy I felt like I might lift off.

Tim: I worked there for 12 months – Helen did, too. I remember a rather elderly woman once asked me if we had a particular book, and I typed its title to check while she watched me intently. After I told her where to find it, she started to walk away, but then she turned and came back.
“Your typing,” she said. “You typed with all ten fingers.”
“Can you look something else up for me?”
“Yes, what?”
“Anything. I want to watch you type again using all your fingers.”
Is it possible to have self-conscious fingers? Mine suddenly felt very naked.

It’s really important having a library close by. I trained as a librarian and I’ve worked in many public libraries, so I suppose I’ve taken them for granted – they’ve just always been there. But as you can see with the closure of so many library services in the UK, you can’t take them for granted at all. A city without a public library is unthinkable. I’d move.

What are you enjoying most about what you’re writing at the moment? What are you finding most challenging about what you’re writing?

Helen: Not much! I’m at the beginning, scary, ‘feeling your way through the dark’ stage and so it’s all a bit uncomfortable and bumpy. I am enjoying the reading I’m doing towards the writing, however: Jay Griffiths, Barry Lopez, Virginia Woolf, Vandana Shiva, Alice Oswald, Shena McKay, Ali Smith….so much brilliance.

What am I finding most challenging? Aspirations versus capabilities.

Tim: These questions assume that I am writing something at the moment, which is cheering. I’m enjoying writing something new: that’s also what I’m finding difficult. I’m working on a research essay focusing on the poetry of Frederick Seidel, and attempting to write some poems of my own that don’t end up like a Seidel pastiche.

What are you reading? What’s it like?

Helen: Oh whoops, I answered that above. I’m reading a lot of ecology writing and also any writing, prose or poetry which plays around with perceptions of time.

Tim: Well, right now I’m reading Pride And Prejudice, because I’m writing a review of it, on its 200th anniversary. I have reservations about it, but you know, I think it’s a keeper.

Anything else?

Helen: Please come to this reading – it will be terrific.

Also, locals call Palmerston North ‘The Swamp’ because it is built on swampland, which makes us swamp dwellers, which I think is kind of cool. I like dwelling in The Swamp.

The Rocky Outcrop Tour
Palmerston North City Library, 5.30pm, March 13. FREE ENTRY. ALL WELCOME.



  1. […] what about erotic typing? Poet Tim Upperton used to work at the Palmerston North public library and writes: I remember a rather elderly woman once asked me if we had a particular book, and I typed its title […]

  2. […] what about erotic typing? Poet Tim Upperton used to work at the Palmerston North public library and writes:I remember a rather elderly woman once asked me if we had a particular book, and I typed its title […]

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