Elizabeth Smither

ANZL Fellow

Photo credit: Liz March


Louise O’Brien on Elizabeth Smither:

Elizabeth Smither tends to be described first as a poet, having published her first collection Here Come the Clouds in 1975 when she was in her mid-30s. Since then, she’s won the Poetry Section of the New Zealand Book Awards (1990), the Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry (2000), been named Te Mata New Zealand Poet Laureate (2001-3), and received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry (2008). Critics admire her idiosyncratic style, witty and intellectually curious, which is usually (but not always) unrhymed, usually (but not always) brief – even miniaturist – and which is distinguished by a rigour and directness which Smither has described as aiming, above all, at truth. Recurring themes include the elusive and deceptive nature of language, and a pervasive interest in Catholicism – particularly in the sense of universal – which is all-embracing in its acceptance of the world in its contradictions.

Smither’s extensive body of poetry has often and, for me, regrettably, overshadowed her prose work. It is in her short stories and novels in which she most powerfully expresses a moving tenderness to the human condition, though the hand of a poet is certainly evident in prose which is characterised by such intensity of image, while paying close attention to the workings of language.

I read Elizabeth Smither because she writes about wonderfully smart and complex women, offering sensitive insight into their domestic lives and relationships.

I read Elizabeth Smither for the optimistic and freeing possibilities in her resistance to closure or conclusion, in character, narrative and, also, in life more broadly. Her stories acknowledge the uncontrollable messiness of life, the ragged edges of a self, the chaos of experience, the many aspects of an individual, and finds melody in the discord. Using multiple narrative perspectives and voices, moving between multiple places and times, her novels and stories accumulate the facets of a life and narrative without ever suggesting that these can be exhausted.

I read Elizabeth Smither because in her books no-one is ordinary; no matter how banal their daily routines, the people in her stories are endlessly complex and interesting in their emotional and intellectual lives. Indeed, it’s precisely in the mundane that there’s a glimpse of the transcendent, something larger that’s evident in the smallnesses of the everyday. These characters are written by an author who genuinely seems to like them, who observes with an irony both detached and empathetic, forgiving poor choices and personal inadequacies as necessary part of a glorious whole, while always refraining from judgement.

I read Elizabeth Smither for the powerful sense of movement and action in her work, for the athletic flexibility of her intellect.

I read Elizabeth Smither to be immersed in worlds which are themselves immersed in literature, celebrating the beauty of words, the power of a lyric, the transformative possibilities of just the right line of poetry. A literary motif might be a starting point for a story, and her characters and narrators are often readers themselves (or sometimes librarians, as was Smither herself), always framed by a rich literary context: they quote poetry and philosophy, compare themselves to literary figures, are changed by what they’ve read. Writers and their luminous words are alive in Smither’s writing and their effects ripple ever outwards: hers are worlds I feel at home in.



Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry (2018)

Sarah Broom Prize for Poetry (2016)

Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in poetry (2008)

Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2004)

Creative NZ Grant (2004)

Finalist for the Montana New Zealand Book Awards (2004)

Awarded an honorary DLitt from the University of Auckland for contributions to literature (2004)

Te Mata Poet Laureate (2002)

Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry (2000)

New Zealand Book Award for Poetry (1990)

Lilian Ida Smith Award (1989)

Literary Fund Travelling Bursary (1988)

Scholarship in Letters in (1987) & (1992)

Auckland University Literary Fellowship (1984)

Freda Buckland Award (1983)

Writing Bursary Award (1977)



Read NZ Te Pou Muramura writer page

NZ Electronic Poetry Centre poet page

The Poetry Archive poet page

Penguin Books author page

Auckland University Press author page

Cape Catley author page


RNZ interview discussing Night Horse (May, 2018)

Ockham NZ Book Award Announcement (May, 2018)

ANZL interview by David Hill  (Sept, 2016)

Stuff.co.nz interview following 2016 Sarah Broome Prize (May, 2016)

Booksellers NZ article following 2016 Sarah Broom Prize (May, 2016)

Radio NZ interview (July, 2013)


New releases by Elizabeth Smither

The Piano Girls (short stories)

Published by Quentin Wilson Publishing on July 2, 2021

Bibliography: Elizabeth Smither



Night Horse (Auckland UP, 2017)

The Blue Coat (Auckland UP, 2013)

The Sea Question (Photographs Juneau Jane Dove: Pacific Light Press, 2010)

The Year of Adverbs (Auckland UP, 2008)

Horse Playing the Accordion (Ahadada Books, Tokyo & Toronto, 2007)

A Question of Gravity: Selected Poems (Arc Publications, 2004)

Red Shoes (Godwit, 2003)

The Lark Quartet (Auckland UP, 1999)

The Tudor Style: Poems New and Selected (Auckland UP, 1993)

A Pattern of Marching (Auckland UP, 1989)

Animaux (Modern House, 1988)

Gorilla / Guerilla (with Gregory O’Brien: The Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, 1986)

Professor Musgrove’s Canary (Auckland UP, 1986)

A Cortège of Daughters (Cloudforms, 1993)

Shakespeare Virgins (Auckland UP, 1983)

Casanova’s Ankle (Oxford UP, 1981)

The Legend of Marcello Mastroianni’s Wife (Auckland UP, 1981)

The Sarah Train (Hawk Press, 1980)

The Seventies Connection, Selected (with David Hill: McIndoe, 1980)

You’re Very Seductive William Carlos Williams (McIndoe, 1978)

Here Come the Clouds: Poems (A Taylor, 1975)



The Piano Girls (Short stories: Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021)

Loving Sylvie (Allen & Unwin, 2019)

Lola (Penguin, 2010)

The Girl Who Proposed (Short stories: Cape Catley, 2008)

Different Kinds of Pleasure (Penguin, 2006)

Listening to the Everly Brothers & Other Stories (Short stories: Penguin, 2002)

The Sea Between Us (Penguin, 2003)

The Mathematics of Jane Austen and Other Stories (Godwit, 1997)

Mr Fish & Other Stories (Short stories: McIndoe, 1994)

Nights at the Embassy (Short stories: Auckland UP, 1990)

Brother-love, Sister-love (Hodder & Stoughton, 1986)

Tug Brothers (Children: Oxford UP, 1983)

First Blood (Hodder & Stoughton, 1983)


Creative Nonfiction

The Journal Box (Auckland UP, 1996)



The Arts of Peace: An Anthology of Poetry (Two Rivers Press, 2014)

Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets: An Anthology (Victoria UP, 2009)

A Good Handful: Great New Zealand Poems About Sex (Auckland UP, 2008)

The Cats’ Whiskers: New Zealand Writers on Cats (Vintage, 2005)

The Nature of Things: Poems from the New Zealand Landscape (Craig Potton Publishing, 2005)

It Looks Better on You: New Zealand Women Writers on their Friendships (J Westaway: Longacre Press, 2003)

Morriesons Motel (Tandem Press, 2000)

The Flamingo Anthology of New Zealand Short Stories (ed. Michael Morrissey: Flamingo, 2000)

Te Whiti and Tohu: 12 poems about Parihaka (Commissioned by the Wellington City Gallery for exhibition, Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance, 2000)

An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (Oxford UP, 1997)

The Source of the Song: New Zealand Writers on Catholicism (ed. Mark Williams: Victoria UP, 1995)

Degustation Domestique: Tart and Juicy: Food Stories from Australian and New Zealand writers (Vintage, 1994)

Poetry New Zealand (The Author, 1991)

Yellow Pencils: Contemporary Poetry by New Zealand Women (Oxford UP, 1988)

An Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry (Oxford UP, 1987)

The New Gramophone Room: Poetry and Fiction (University of Auckland, 1985)

'NZ literature is such a vast and varied thing' - Pip Adam

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