new zealand electronic poetry centre


B I L L   S E W E L L

12 Taonga



Bill Sewell was born in Athens, Greece, in 1951 and spent his childhood in Southern Europe, the Middle East, and England, where he received his primary school education. He came to New Zealand at fourteen. Sewell was educated at the Universities of Auckland and Otago, completing a Ph.D. in German at the latter, where he also lectured. Thereafter, he worked as an editor with John McIndoe and the University of Otago Press. In 1981 and 1982, he was awarded the Burns Felowship at the University of Otago, and in 1982 published his first volume of poetry, Solo Flight. 1983 saw the release of his next collection, Wheels Within Wheels. A third collection, Making the Far Land Glow, appeared in 1986. Sewell had three further volumes of poetry published before his death in January 2003¾ Erebus (1999), El Sur (2001), and The Ballad of Fifty-one (2003). In the late 1980s, Sewell moved to Wellington and took a law degree at Victoria University, after which he worked as a legal researcher for the New Zealand Law Commission. From 1997 to 2002 he was co-editor of New Zealand Books. Sewell also co-edited a number of non-fiction works and three collections of poetry. He was posthumously awarded the first Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry in 2003.



  • Solo Flight, Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1982
  • Wheels Within Wheels, Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1983
  • Making the Far Land Glow, Dunedin: McIndoe, 1986
  • Erebus: A Poem, Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1999
  • El Sur, Wellington: Pemmican Press, 2001
  • The Ballad of Fifty-one, Wellington: HeadworX, 2003


  • Balancing on Blue (with Jeanette Stace), Wellington: New Zealand Poetry Society, 1991
  • Ginger Stardust: A Selection of Poems and Haiku from the 1992 New Zealand International Poetry Competition (with Jeanette Stace), Wellington: New Zealand Poetry Society, 1992
  • Sons of the Fathers: New Zealand Men Write About Their Fathers, Auckland: Tandem Press, 1997
  • Under Review: A Selection from New Zealand Books 1991- 1996 (with Lauris Edmond and Harry Ricketts), Lincoln: Lincoln University Press, 1997
  • Essential New Zealand Poems (with Lauris Edmond), Auckland: Godwit, 2001

Other Works:

  • A Guide to the Rimutaka Forest Park, Wellington: GP Books, 1989


By Ships We Live
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By Ships We Live

It was a tingling in the balls that told them,
like edging too close to a rock face:

a twist of the tide, the slop of the swell,
the mercenary attentions of seabirds.

Out of the blue they broke,
the sails, the expectations, the names.

, Heemskerck, Endeavour:
how they transported their history

as a deadening freight, as baggage,
barnacles clinging like grievances to the keel.

Then the commerce would begin:
footprints for sand; words for silence.

There, not just as the unusual event,
the sudden flaw on the curve,

but by the month, by the day,
feeling their way along the chart

for that orifice in the cliffs
and making their run through the heads:

, Tararua, Penguin,
all finding out just how intolerant

of carelessness this coast can be,
once you sail out of line.

Yet the masts still thickened ashore,
the funnels exhaled bad faith

(according to the terms of the bargain).
While men went below as into a mine

to dig out the lampblack
that darkened their days and their lungs

and the names of the ships that carried it:
Korowai, Myrtlebank, Asunçion de Larrinaga

[The Ballad of Fifty-one, Wellington: HeadworX, 2003]




Last updated July 15, 2004