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Who Got The Gig? Helen Heath is in the house

06 Aug 2019
Ockham winner Helen Heath talks poetry, science, and generating fresh content

Last year LIANZA advertised on The Big Idea seeking a Communications Co-ordinator to join their small, hard-working team. Helen Heath, poet and devotee to all things literary, was the chosen applicant bringing with her an abundance of experience stretching across publishing, creative writing, and marketing.

Taking charge

LIANZA is the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa. It is a membership organisation for library and information management professionals that empowers communities through access to information. Helen has been in the role since the start of this year, and has managed to squeeze a lot into that short time, including building an entirely new website.

“We've recently gone live with a new website that was built in-house. That was a great experience, and highlights one of the wonderful things about being in a small team — you get to do a bit of everything!”

In her role Helen generates content for LIANZA’s free bi-monthly magazine, looks after social media, and is also responsible for internal communication.

“Our magazine used to be printed but we've gone digital to get it out to more people. My role involves a lot of comms, like communicating certain things to our members and the public. If anything is changing or we have some great news to share, for instance, the IFLA World Library and Information Congress that is coming to Auckland in 2022, I’ll send something out.”

A bookish past

Prior to working for LIANZA, Helen taught the Graduate Diploma in Publishing at Whitireia Polytech — which she enjoyed immensely, but ultimately decided it was time for a new challenge.

“There was a lot of change going on at Whitireia and I thought well it's time for me to try something new! My last 25-30 years of work has all been in the book industry — from bookselling to publishing. Working with libraries was one part of books that I hadn’t actually got into yet, so it was the perfect thing to do next.”

Helen’s literary career began with a job as a bookseller for Unity Books in Wellington, later going on to be included in one of the first intakes of publishing students at Whitireia. She has an impressive list of academic achievements, including a PhD in Creative Writing from the Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University Wellington.

“It was a real hoot working at Unity Books. Bookshops are fantastic places to work in, but sometimes it is nice to earn a bit more money, so that’s why I went into publishing and marketing. I've kind of slowly moved around trying just about everything you can do related to writing and books.”

Some of the skills that help Helen the most in her new role at LIANZA were gained from the publishing programme at Whitireia, which developed her editorial and project management capabilities.

“My creative writing education has also been helpful because I have to churn out a lot of content. I'm writing magazine articles, blog posts, and things like that all the time.
This role is great because it’s a culmination of all the different skills I have picked up over the years in all my different positions. I've reached a point where they've all kind of come together.”

Science and poetry hybrid

Helen’s creative writing skills are exemplified in her award-winning poetry books Graft and Are Friends Electric?.

“My whole bag is science poetry. I'm really interested in how the arts can help the sciences communicate. I’m trying to inject humanity into science by seeing the ideas of science in people and the everyday. Poetry can make science more accessible for the layperson.”

A huge creative influence for Helen is Bill Manhire, who is also interested in the way science and poetry can interact.

“He started up a programme years ago called Are Angels Ok?, years ago where he enlisted scientists to collaborate with creative writers. A lot of creative output came out of that which was quite interesting. That was happening just before I did my Masters and it got me off on that track.”

Both of Helen’s parents are scientists, so she grew up in a household that was constantly engaging with science and which encouraged a scientific thought process.

“I was the black sheep of the family going into poetry…but I think that's why I found it easy to figure out how science can be domestic and everyday — I grew up surrounded by it. It doesn’t have to be something that is way out there, set aside from us.”

Succeeding in changing perceptions

Helen’s first book Graft was the first book of poetry, or fiction, to ever be shortlisted for the Royal Society of NZ Science Book Prize, and in 2013 it won the NZ Society of Authors Jessie Mackay Best First Book for Poetry Award.

“Being shortlisted was a breakthrough because it came at a time where science communicators were trying to think about how they could be engaging differently with the public. My first book was about traditional science while the second, Are Friends Electric?, is thinking more along the lines of technology and futuristic science — in the book there is a sequence about a woman whose partner dies and she uploads him into the Cloud.”

Are Friends Electric? recently won the Peter and Mary Biggs Poetry Award at the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Helen believes that creative success can come from self-discipline, and setting aside time for your creative work — even when that might seem like an impossible task.

“We're all crazy aren't we? It can be incredibly difficult to juggle creativity when you’re working full-time. Think about people like Patricia Grace; she had seven children and ended up writing at the kitchen table while they slept! Or Pip Adam who wrote The New Animals in chunks of 15 minutes... I guess it’s having the discipline to grab the time when you have it.”

Photo credit: Victoria Birkinshaw