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How to Make Your Words Count

17 Nov 2020
Every artist aims to break new ground, Jenny Bornholdt has done it for decades. She talks to The Big Idea about her latest honour and how to leave your mark.

“Sometimes, a single word will be the ignition for a poem.” 

Jenny Bornholdt should know - she’s been doing it for close to four decades. “Poems can come from something seen or heard of from thought. Ideas come from all manner of places.”

Bornholdt is a prolific poet and anthologist who has been writing since 1984. Bill Direen wrote of her work in The Listener in 1995 ‘many poems…ring like the reassuring chime of crystal glass or with the resonance of a perfectly fired bell.… They reveal the hidden.’

A career of firsts

She is a highly decorated writer, having received the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards (Ockham New Zealand Book Awards). When she was 45, she became the youngest person to ever be pronounced a Poet Laureate. Bornholdt is also the only New Zealand poet who has had her work recited by an Australian Prime Minister in Parliament (Julia Gillard). 

Bornholdt recalls “when I was asked to write the poem for the NZ Memorial in Canberra, I felt a big responsibility to get it 'right'. 

“I hadn't written a poem that would carry that kind of weight before. I liked the fact that the commission was for a poem that, as well as being a marker of the relationship between New Zealand and Australia during the war, was also to celebrate the ongoing relationship between the two countries. That gave me room to move outside of the idea of memorial, to something that was less freighted with loss.”

'A huge honour'

 Now, she can add the 2020 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement to her accolades. She joins Tessa Duder (fiction) and Sir Tīmoti Kāretu (non-fiction) in this year’s remarkable trio of talent being recognised.

Creative New Zealand describes Bornholdt as “outstanding in all areas and has done a lot of work in the sector…[her] work spans a significant period of time…[and is] noted as of a very high quality.”

For Bornholdt herself describes the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in poetry as ”a huge honour. I feel fortunate to have my work recognised in this way.”

While her work has made her a standout in an exceptional field, Bornholdt “[doesn’t think] that there’s any one defining character trait that makes a good poet. The ones I know and the ones I don't know, but read, all seem to me to be able to think about the world in an interesting way. 

“They pay great attention to language and the different ways in which it can work and be interesting. They know about sound, rhythm and meanings and where to break a line and can use words in unexpected ways to great effect. They can also be funny and playful at times.”

Be you, be different

Reflecting on advice for aspiring poets, Bornholdt recalls the lessons she learnt when first starting out as a student of the Original Composition course at Victoria University. “We had to do a writing exercise each week,” she remembers. “We were asked to write many different things - sometimes a prose piece, sometimes poetry, or we might be asked to adapt a folk tale for radio. Initially I thought I couldn't write in those forms; I'd never done that before and was firmly of the mind that poetry was what I wanted to write. But I found that it was interesting to try different ways of writing and that it stretched me and expanded my idea of what I was capable of. 

Maybe that's what I'd say to people who are starting out - don't be afraid of trying different things. Also, read a lot. I think you can learn a huge amount from reading - I know I have. You learn about form and how writing 'works', you see other writers doing interesting things and it makes you think about what you're doing yourself.”


The Big Idea is proud to partner with Creative New Zealand and Auckland Live for the Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement online panel.  The event can be viewed on our Facebook page and Youtube channel.