Ockham Winner 2019: ‘Are Friends Electric?’ by Helen Heath

Below is an excerpt from the poetry collection Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath, which won this year’s Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

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About the poet:

Helen Heath’s first book, Graft, was published in 2012 and won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book for Poetry Award in 2013. It was also the first book of fiction or poetry to be shortlisted for the Royal Society of NZ Science Book Prize. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington.

About the book:

Are Friends Electric? offers a vivid and moving vision of a past, present and future mediated by technology. The first part of Helen Heath’s bold new collection is comprised largely of found poems which emerge from conversations about sex bots, people who feel an intimate love for bridges, fences and buildings, a meditation on Theo Jansen’s beautifully strange animal sculptures, and the lives of birds in cities.

A series of speculative poems further explores questions of how we incorporate technology into our lives and bodies. In these poems on grief, Heath asks how technology can keep us close with those we have lost. How might our experiences of grieving and remembering be altered?

‘As in her debut collection Graft, which was the first non-non-fiction work to be shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book prize, Heath has shown how lightly and easily poetry can wear serious research….Heath’s collection casts an electric brightness over what it means to be human’

(From a Cordite review by Amy Brown, June 2018)




(Victoria University Press)


In Pripyat, the ghost city

circa 2014


Players travel around the exclusion zone, their avatars’
radiation steadily increasing, avoiding sickness by drinking
virtual vodka. Our guide says eagles eat Lenin in the pines,
cats sit atop deserted books.

The glass must be cleared by 2065 but for now we stalk over
broken scavengers, through dilapidated threats. Our tour
sneaks into the zone to bungee for a dare. We drink from the
city and swim in the Bison.

A guard is working on a video documentary about London
hallways. He also plans a radiation ghost of Gavin, whom
mushrooms hang from. A hospital stands near the broken

Around the zone macabre potato gas steadily increases.
Avoid the tourist crunch with a Soviet-era virtual stroller.
Don’t roam for Babushka Rosalia; she crawled back under
the barbed exclusion like a wilderness. Her biggest wire now
is her tableaux of moose masks and broken children deserted
into wolves.



This poem takes as its starting point George Johnson’s article ‘The Nuclear Tourist’, National Geographic, October 2014. Selected text was randomised and reworked. ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/10/nuclear-tourism/johnson-text



© Helen Heath, 2018, published in Are Friends Electric?, Victoria University Press.

'There’s a kind of heaven that comes from hearing another writer interpret the mysteries of process' - Tracey Slaughter

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