Amid the gothic architecture of Barcelona, a young man is immersed in the words of New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither. The reader is Antonio Cuadrado Fernandez, who has the same first name as Spanish architectural genius Gaudi. Buildings designed by the late master soar from the streets of the gothic quarter like sculpted bat caves. The Spanish scholar sits at an outdoor cafe with a coffee at his elbow, the sun on his back and Elizabeth's poetry open before him like pleading hands.

Antonio has written, in English, a thesis on the Taranaki woman's work. The precise title of his study is Casting a Light on New Zealand: The Influence of Wallace Stevens and Allen Curnow on Elizabeth Smither. New Zealand's Te Mata Estate Poet Laureate 2001-2003 was stunned to learn that someone on the other side of world was doing a thesis on her work. Over the internet, the poet and the scholar have become literary friends. "We exchange emails. He sends me Spanish quotes."

Tickling her muse

The 62-year-old swiftly dismisses any romantic notions – “he's only 28” – but she has followed his path into academia. On 22 March 2004, Elizabeth received an honorary doctorate of literature from Auckland University. Dr Smither also admits to having her muse tickled by the two poets proposed by the Spaniard. "I am influenced by Wallace Stevens" she says of the Nobel-prize-winning American poet, who died in 1955. "I find it fascinating that someone in Spain would see that in my poetry."

Elizabeth puts the Wallace effect into perspective: "I expect thousands of poets are influenced by him." The same goes for fellow New Zealand poet Allen Curnow, whose “exacting standards of accuracy” have moved Elizabeth to penning with precision. "In his poems, there's not a word out of place… there's no pulling the wool over your eyes. Even in his latest poems, he's observing things very closely. That's what poetry does - it observes the world." While the New Plymouth librarian also paints clear pictures, there are major disparities between the methods of the Kiwi bards.

Dashing out the words

"There are two types of poets" she says. "Those who write fast, who write on the back of an envelope while a friend is getting dressed to go to a party. Or, like Allen Curnow, who writes extremely slowly, barely a couple of lines a day. I'm one of the fast ones."

And prolific. A record of her published works is as long as a child's Christmas list. It includes three novels, short story anthologies and a pile of poetry. Elizabeth's novel work has put her in the running for a major national prize. She was a finalist in the fiction section of the Montana Book Awards for The Sea Between Us, published by Penguin in 2003.

Elizabeth's first collection of poems, Here Come the Clouds, was published in 1975. Since then, a dozen more poetry anthologies have followed. This month her first full-length United Kingdom release is being put out by Arc Publications. A Question of Gravity: Selected Poems is an extensive selection from five of her most recent collections, including Red Shoes (2003). The latter is her laureate offering.

While this was published with the help of Te Mata Estate Winery, Elizabeth turns to tea to liberate her creativity. She makes a pot of Dilmah Extra Strong - served weak with a splash of milk - and surrounds herself with poetry books. She dips into the verses, like an Elizabethan scribe dipping a quill into ink. Dip and scribble. Dip and scribble.


"You have to be in touch with poetry all the time to be able to write it. There's nothing that kickstarts you more than reading a good poet." Writing poetry is a whole experience for Elizabeth, who was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004 for her contribution to literature. She thinks, plays out ideas, feels the language, wallows in the words.

“Time, when you write, grows burrs

And on each word this invisible brake

Thickens the moments you work in.


A fast thought burns hours.

A failure to brake at crossroads

Burns the air, the hour until


The air almost smokes or smells of fuel.

The real burr on the animal crossing a field

Is as slow and leisurely as sunlight.”

 From the collection A Cortege of Daughters (1993)

"I love the idea of a thought winding its way through a poem. You can't always pull it off. You don't honestly know what you are going to say until you start, but you may have an idea" she states, her words as properly formed as those in her prose and poems.

Elizabeth speaks at speed, with no need to rest thoughts on umms or aaahs. Her vowels are rounded, the Kiwi vernacular filed away to elocution smoothness, and delivered with a librarian's hush. Her sentences are grammatically correct and filled with literary treasures - metaphors, anecdotes and writing tips. "People say I write just the way I talk, so maybe that's true" she says.

It all adds up

Apart from book reviews or critiques, which she writes on her word processor, Elizabeth prefers to put nib to paper. Even novels are penned in longhand. "Writing by hand is really pleasurable - the pen and the thought all go together. The speed of the hand across the page is like the suspended thought."

Wherever she goes, Elizabeth has a notebook with her. "I just like the idea that I can take my notebook out into the garden and write. Or on an aeroplane or in church." While this may sound casual, Elizabeth is in truth a highly calculating writer. "There's a real mathematical basis to writing. When someone rings up and asks you to do a book review, the first thing you ask is 'How many words?'."

When planning a novel, she first does the number crunching. Working on the theory that the average novel contains 80,000 to 90,000 words, she aims to write 100,000 words. "That allows you freedom to cut 10,000 words." Next step is to look at her life, figure out schedules and work out commitments.

When writing The Sea Between Us, Elizabeth chose to give herself a relatively easy schedule. "I decided to write 250 words [each session], so I could amble through it." She wrote only on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, so each week she produced 1000 words. "If you just keep going it goes on piling itself up."

“Come hell or high water...”

That equates to 100 weeks (nearly two years) of self-discipline and dogged determination. "When I start something, come hell or high water, I don't let myself off the hook" she says.

All her novels are written in a series of exercise books, which, like the notebooks, can be taken everywhere. Even when staying with friends, Elizabeth wakes up early and writes before languishing over breakfast. Little do her hosts know that she has already fulfilled her day's quota. "You have this secret feeling - I'm writing a novel and these people don't know it."

Turning into literary tutor, she explains why people with novel dreams would do best to stick with set writing sessions. "If you can get into this pattern, the subconscious is waiting for you; it's ready to perform for you. You get up in the morning, get the pen, and go. If you don't keep doing it, it just dies down.

Writers write

"I do have periods when I don't write well. I think what you learn is that out of that comes the good writing. The writing that's perfunctory prepares the way for the writing that has life. People who never fail, never succeed really. A writer is simply a person who writes. Real writers don't have the choice either," she says. "This belief that you need a special room, a good computer, someone poking meals under the door is just nonsense."

Making a song and dance about her writing is not Elizabeth's way. But there have been times when she has jumped for joy over words. One was when she was a 17-year-old student at New Plymouth Girls' High School. She had been in the library working on the school magazine with her English teacher, Miss Steuart, who suddenly spoke some magical words.

Leaping to an inner beat

"She said to me 'You should be a writer'," Elizabeth remembers. "That made me feel so excited I ran across the hockey field and jumped up and down a few times - like they do in football when Manchester United scores - making grimaces at the sky."

Then she reworks her words, choosing another image. "No, like a very short, unfit Masai warrior" she says, painting a picture of an elated schoolgirl wearing a navy blue gym frock with three large front pleats, navy blue and silver striped tie, bobbing up and down to an inner beat.  "Then I calmed myself down and walked back into class, because I didn't want anyone to see me."

Interestingly, Elizabeth didn't believe everything Miss Steuart said. "She was a very good teacher, but she absolutely hated Keats and didn't bother teaching him." Like a writer building a character, Elizabeth explains how her teacher had been ill when she was young and had, therefore, developed a strong will. "I'm always suspicious of charismatic people who try to enforce their will on others - she did try to demolish Keats." This made Elizabeth both curious and slightly rebellious. Over the years, she has read and studied the works of John Keats, written poems and a short story about the early-19th Century English romantic poet and even visited his London home.

Although she held fast to Miss Steuart's positive proclamation of her talents, Elizabeth says she flourished better under the tender tutelage of Miss Geddes, her Latin teacher. Miss Geddes' little idiosyncrasy was to cough frequently, and the girls would count how many times she did so in a lesson.

Library, Latin and stars

This bark didn't deter Elizabeth from falling under her spell. "She was a very gentle person. I continued studying Latin with her after leaving school." The bookish Elizabeth finished her school days and went to work at the New Plymouth Public Library, which became Puke Ariki.

After work at the library one starry night in 1957, Elizabeth was studying Latin with Miss Geddes, when the teacher's elderly mother strode in and shooed the women outside to scan the sky. "We had to go out and look at the Sputnik" says Elizabeth of the Russian satellite, the first of its kind in the world. Her poem, Sputnik and the Star, belongs to that period.

 "...It swam out of the ice I thought

Like the eye of a polar bear

Something cold and clever and clear

Tracking a passage where none had been

A watch held in space by a hair..."

"In a way you write your life in your poems" says Elizabeth. And sometimes poems right your life.

A Brasch discovery

That happened by chance in 1970 when Elizabeth's (now ex-) husband, artist Michael Smither, had won the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in Dunedin. With their children, Sarah and Thomas (Joseph was born down south) the Smithers left Taranaki for the one-year post.

At the time, Elizabeth, who was doing her own creative writing, had sent a poem to a friend, who had pinned it on a wall of her home. There, it was read by Charles Brasch, founder of literary magazine Landfall. "Charles rang one day and said 'You should be writing'. I felt wildly excited, just like with Miss Steuart, and so I decided to write more seriously."

Five years later, Elizabeth's first collection of poetry was published. This led to her first and strangest public reading.

Lamb to the slaughter

Elizabeth, with friend Tonia Matthews as moral support, headed for the Stratford Hotel. "We were in this dining room eating this awful mutton when this huge Canadian man asked us, 'Is there anything to do in this god forsaken awful town?' And Tonia said, 'There's a concert on in town tonight' and he replied 'As long as it's not any of that darn poetry reading'."

At the end of the recital, held in a hall filled with country craft and produce, Elizabeth felt a heavy hand on her shoulder and a drawl in her ear: ‘That was just fine’. Elizabeth wasn't the only performer that night - Red Mole also entertained the locals. "They were a drama group who ran around with eggbeaters and kitchen utensils and they got in and out of huge boxes. It was very outrageous for Stratford" she says. "We drove home like stunned mullets after that."

Quirky happenings, moving events, still life, real life, even the seemingly mundane, all end up in Elizabeth's work. "Just writing about yourself is not enough. You have got to make it interesting to other people. You are creating stories."

A Parisienne twist

Lately, her steady deep-grey gaze has been held by a new bird feeder in her garden. "I filled it with birdseed and for a week nothing happened - I thought 'the birds in my garden have a low intellectual capacity'." They have proved her wrong and now she can't keep up with the seed. "I described the birdfeeder like Curnow would describe a room."

Even friends appear in Elizabeth's poems. "I had a delightful Frenchwoman called Francine staying. She lay on the floor fawning over my cat." But one day the woman was unfaithful to Elizabeth's pet. "She picked up a black cat down the drive, twirled it around her shoulders and poked her tongue out at my cat." This is the resulting poem, titled Francine with cat

“Madeline has her eleven companions

under the towering Miss Clavel.

Francine standing at the end of the driveway

has the neighbour's black cat in her arms.


A love scene is being played out: the cat

sensing a Parisienne twines around her neck

and Francine pretends to swoon

as if love and Madeline and cats are opportunities


and perfect equals: there is no scale

when a chance presents itself

for illustration: Miss Clavel calls

Madeline put down that cat and come along.”

Elizabeth is Miss Clavel. She walks like the picture book character - slightly forward, swift, and dressed in the black of her Puke Ariki uniform. Her short, easy-care bob of grey-blonde hair is parted on the side and flicks back like a nun's habit as she rushes along a corridor.

Among the books

The library has played a large role in her life. She has made firm friends among the books, met Michael Smither amid the shelves (they married in 1963) and even now this place of fiction and fact provides Elizabeth with tea and birdseed. "I like being surrounded by books, of course. All my life I have had a fascination with libraries, although I have not built up a library of my own - I just have a poetry library really, at home."

Elizabeth's love of literature goes back to her parents, especially her father, an ex-Southland farmer. "When he was shearing, he always had (William Makepeace) Thackeray and (Charles) Dickens in his pocket." Edwin (Ted) Russell Harrington inspired his daughter to tackle big books. "He was a heavy reader and so when I was about 11, I was reading things like Upton Sinclair. He wrote about the meatpackers in Chicago, about Lithuanians who were chosen because they were built like pack horses" Elizabeth says.

Unlike her father, whom Elizabeth describes as having a build like former All Blacks coach John Mitchell. "He was lean, but not rakishly skinny."

Drawing from real life

In the 1920s, he had a stint shearing on sheep stations in Australia's outback. At the time, Elizabeth's Australian mother was working as a governess at Government House in Melbourne. Elsie Irene Bowerman was a petite woman with thick waves of dark hair and a high forehead. "As a young woman she was very beautiful."

 Ted and Elsie met on a blind date. They were placed together by friends to make up a double outing. Pieces of their story are scattered through The Sea Between Us, revealing once again Elizabeth's belief in writing about what she knows.

Back across the Tasman, Ted Harrington worked as a watersider in New Plymouth. "He was a man who lived for his hobbies" Elizabeth says. Collecting coins, mostly South African, and making models were his favourite pastimes. For years, he belonged to the New Plymouth Model Engineers Club. The hobbyist was also a man of influence - especially on his daughter. "I think I really wanted to go nursing. In those days teaching or nursing were considered the things to do, or secretarial" Elizabeth says. "I didn't go nursing because my father had a sister who was a nurse, Dolly, and he thought she was terribly bossy and he didn't want me to become like her."

Instead she turned to words, a move that pleased her parents. "I never questioned them about individual things or what they read. I just know they were proud of me. I think in those days people were much more reticent."

Ted Harrington died in August 1984, when Elizabeth was writer in residence at Auckland University. Her mother, died in July 2003. Elizabeth's only sibling is Keith (called Harry), a naval architect in the north of England.

A curious mind

This means solo visits to New Plymouth's Awanui Cemetery, where their parents are buried. "I'm writing a lot about cemeteries at the moment" she says. "The other day I was thinking that their graves side by side are a bit like single beds."

She has also been asking grave questions. "I have been spending time talking to the grave diggers, asking how long and how deep?" She has discovered that it is better to dig graves by hand. And that some graves are not as deep as others because a family member is already buried in the same plot.

"Writers are naturally curious about everything," Elizabeth explains. They also look at the ordinary and see the extraordinary, portray life with the slant of an abstract artist, cross cultures as easily as the Euro dollar, pin us down like bugs.

Elizabeth has a quote written on the outside of a white envelope. "The more reality pushes against us, the more the imagination is compelled to press back." It's by Wallace Stevens. And so we're back in Barcelona, where a Spaniard sits reading Elizabeth's work amid Gaudi's gothic architecture...

Timeline: Works and Honours


Here Come the Clouds: Poems


Writing Bursary Award ($4000), this award allows previously published writers at an early stage in their career to work for six months full time on an approved project.


You're Very Seductive William Carlos Williams: Poems


Little Poems


The Seventies Connection, selected by David Hill and Elizabeth Smither

The Sarah Train: Poems


The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni's Wife: Poems

Casanova's Ankle: Poems


Shakespeare Virgins: Poems

First Blood: a novel

Tug Brothers: A children's book

Freda Buckland Award, this award acknowledges achievements in one year of work.


Auckland University Literary Fellowship, this award was jointly created by the University of Auckland and Creative New Zealand to foster New Zealand writing by providing a full time opportunity to work in an academic environment.


The New Gramaphone Room: Poetry and fiction, Selected by C.K. Stead, Elizabeth Smither and Kendrick Smithyman

Contributed to On Stage 2: four original New Zealand plays for secondary schools, Edited by David Dowling


Brother-love, Sister-love: a novel

Professor Musgrove's Canary: Poems

Gorilla, Guerilla: A word story


Taranaki, David Hill, Elizabeth Smither, photographs by Jane Dove

Scholarship in Letters ($36,000), awarded by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (now Creative New Zealand). Allows a full year to work on a project.


Animaux: Poems

Literary Fund Travelling Bursary, awarded by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (now Creative New Zealand). Elizabeth used it to travel to England.


A Pattern of Marching: Poems

Lilian Ida Smith Award this award helps writers over 35 years of age further their careers.


Nights at the Embassy: Stories

Won New Zealand Book Award for Poetry for A Pattern of Marching


Poetry New Zealand. Number 3, edited by Elizabeth Smither and Brian Turner


Scholarship in Letters ($36,000), awarded by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (now Creative New Zealand). Allows a full year to work on a project.


Poems New and Selected

The Tudor style: Poems new and selected

A Cortege of Daughters: Poems


Mr Fish and Other Stories


Contributed to The Source of the Song: New Zealand writers on Catholicism, edited by Mark Williams


The Journal Box: Contains four journals kept at different times over 20 years


The Mathematics of Jane Austen and Other Stories


The Lark Quartet: Poems

Contributed to Seeing Voices: New Zealand Poets Reading


Te Whiti and Tohu: 12 poems about Parihaka, commissioned by the Wellington City Gallery for exhibition, Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance

Won Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry for The Lark Quartet


First woman to become Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate (2001-2003). This award is gifted to poets who will work actively to enhance the public profile of New Zealand Poetry as well as producing their own verse.


Listening to the Everly Brothers and Other Stories


Red Shoes - Elizabeth's Laureate work

Contributed to It Looks Better on You: New Zealand women writers on their friendships, edited by Jane Westaway and Tessa Copland

The Sea Between Us: A Novel


In the New Year's honours list, Elizabeth was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her contribution to literature.

On 22 March, Elizabeth received an Honorary Doctorate for Literature from Auckland University.

A Question of Gravity: Selected Poems Elizabeth's first full-length United Kingdom release was published in June.

Montana Book Awards: Finalist in the fiction section for her novel, The Sea Between Us.

Creative NZ grant of $36,000.

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