new zealand electronic poetry centre

Mike Johnson 

Friday 23 August  7.30-10pm  once and for all
Saturday 24 August 10.15 – 11.30am  scoop:  ten poets read new poem

Mike Johnson is a New Zealand writer whose stories and poems are touched by the magical and the bizarre. He was born in Christchurch and brought up in the lonely, small towns of Canterbury. After graduating from Canterbury University, he went overseas for nine years, teaching English as a foreign language in Germany, Spain and North Africa.

He returned to New Zealand in 1980, "itching to write and in search of a place to start". He moved to Waiheke Island in 1982, where he has lived ever since with his family.

Mike first registered on the New Zealand literary scene as a poet with a minimalist Chinese style, launching his career with The Palanquin Ropes, an award-winning sequence of poems. In 1984 he went on a performance tour with poets Susan Lees and John Pule.

For four years he published nothing but poetry, then, in 1986 burst out with the lush Lear – The Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon, of which critic David Dowling said, "One of the most remarkable NZ novels I have ever seen".  His fourth novel, Dumb Show, won the Buckland Award for literary excellence and his short story, Magic Strings, won the Francis Keane Memorial competition. Several of his stories and poems have been included in anthologies.

Mike still writes poetry to keep close to the roots of the language. His latest published collection of poetry was Treasure Hunt (AUP, 1996).

Mike is familiar to many locals on Waiheke Island for his skills in the craft of marbling. He has taught creative writing for eight years at The University of Auckland's Department for Continuing Education. He has twice stood for Parliament for the Green Party and has been active in environmental politics. In his "spare time" He loves reading Dostoevsky, tramping and reading to his children.

Mike Johnson has received a number of other awards and fellowships including: co-winner of the 1981 John Cowie Reed Memorial Competition with The Palanquin Ropes; finalist in the 1986 New Zealand Book Awards for the novel Lear; the 1987 University of Canterbury Literary Fellowship, and grants for creative writing in 1985, 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1996. He is the current Literary Fellow at the University of Auckland.

singing the blues on Mt Hua

autumn winds patrol the earth desiccating everything in sight -
indigo flowers bloom on the steep slopes
in the snappy chill of twilight

here I am, barely twenty, hopes turned to dust
I’m all sadness and grief, an orchid under a death sentence

clothes ragged feathers, horse a skinny dog -
at the crossroads I smash rocks with my sword
to make the bronze bellow

at the first tavern with its banners flying, I pawn my coat
for a jar of hometown wine

deep inside the jar, I remonstrate with Heaven -
no clouds unfold

the pale day turns into a thousand miles
cold as clay, befuddling the eye

the barman counsels me to take care of flesh and spirit
and not let crowd of sniveling fools
beat me to pulp

stay at home today, pilgrim

the heavens dissimulate, make faces,
earth clutches its shadowy secrets

the nine-headed beast will suck at your spirit
deep winter crisp your bones to snapping

hounds unleashed, mouths agape will hunt you down
and lick the smell of the virtuous off their paws

only now does Heaven’s chariot arrive
star-jeweled sword and yoke of pure gold

I set my horse to speed but there’s no return road -
monstrous waves rear on Lake Mirage
where even heroes drown

rattling their metal armour, lethal dragons stare at me
griffins and the gibbering dead drool from ravenous jaws

this hermit wasted a lifetime snoozing in the grass
that disciple, aged only twenty-nine, had hair iced with white

did the hermit lack strength of heart
or the disciple betray Heaven?

rather Heaven feared they both would be devoured –

need further proof? here’s a man raving at the wall
while carving his questions to Heaven


Song of an ancient arrowhead

charred lacquer spots, bone ash
cinnabar stains

in this chill murk, ancient blood has bloomed
green on bronze

proud white feather and gold-leafed shaft
rotted to nothing

just this thin triangle, blunt wedge
ruined wolf fang

I scoured the battle plain, driving two nags
through stony fields, to the base of scrubby ridges
far east of my station

eternal winds, brief daylight, truant stars
banners of cloud, saturated black, were hoisted into the void

right and left ghouls, the starveling dead
shrieked hunger for their funeral rites

I tipped the last curds from my flask in libation
charred some cuts of lamb over a bit of a fire

insect sounds died, geese moaned sickly,
swamp reeds were drenched in red

whirlwinds, blasting emerald foxfire
saw me on my way

always seeking old things, face screwed up with tears
I scored this severed barb on a battlefield

crooked point crimson splintered
once shafted human flesh

later, on South Street, some sharp kid
tries to trade it for the simple votive baskets
the pious use to pay homage to fallen warriors

Reads from Vertical Harp, Translations from Li He (790 - 816)

  • singing the blues on Mt Hua (nzepc)
      lo-fi (rm : 270KB, streaming)
      hi-fi (mp3 : 540KB)
  • great master Li Ping plays the vertical harp (nzepc)
      lo-fi (rm : 450KB, streaming)
      hi-fi (mp3 : 850KB)
  • time immutable (nzepc)
      lo-fi (rm : 180KB, streaming)
      hi-fi (mp3 : 380KB)
  • occult strings 2  (nzepc)
      lo-fi (rm : 360KB, streaming)
      hi-fi (mp3 : 700KB)
  • frontier hangover (nzepc)
      lo-fi (rm : 460KB, streaming)
      hi-fi (mp3 : 870KB)
  • song of an ancient arrowhead (nzepc)
      lo-fi (rm : 460KB, streaming)
      hi-fi (mp3 : 870KB)


© Mike Johnson and Li He (780 – 816)

Last updated 18 March, 2003