Image by Sav Schulmann

Jan Kemp

b. 1949

We lie on love's breath - Jan Kemp, 'Puriri'

About Jan Kemp

Jan Kemp was born in Hamilton, New Zealand, in 1949. She was the sole woman anthologized in The Young New Zealand Poets (1973), and in 1979 co-starred with Alistair Campbell, Hone Tuwhare, and Sam Hunt on a national poetry-reading tour. During the next two decades, while the gender balance among New Zealand poets spectacularly changed, she taught in universities in the South Pacific, Asia, and Europe. For nine years she was based at the National University of Singapore. More recently, married to eminent professor and analyst of postcolonial literature in English, Dieter Riemenschneider, she and her husband shuttled between the two hemispheres, with bases in Frankfurt and Auckland, finally settling outside Frankfurt in September 2007.

Kemp's poems bear the evidence of her cosmopolitan career. They are prompted by diverse places, people, events, and objects, but the outer world around which she moves always shades into an inner world of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Kemp has an eye for the tiniest detail and an unusual capacity to enter into other lives, even past lives: the towns and cities she visits are peopled with the dead as well as the living, so poetry may be sparked by snippets of information about historical figures who inhabited them. Kemp is adept at reading signs and hearing sounds. She delights in the quirkiness of language, its rhythms and tones, as words echo and chime, forming patterns. Her poems are made to be heard. She herself is their ideal performer.

'Puriri' celebrates the miracle of love while acknowledging its fragility. 'Hong Kong sounds' playfully evokes the commercial bustle, noise, and glitz of the city. The whimsical 'Ballad of Donna Quixote', driven by its rollicking beat and unpredictable rhymes, gives a feminine slant on Cervantes' novel.

Kemp's latest collection, Dante's Heaven (2006), engages with familiar New Zealand themes of personal and national identity, here and there, then and now, in an imaginative new way. At the end of the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil journey upwards from the depths of Hell to emerge in the southern 'watery hemisphere' on the shores of the island-mountain Purgatory, the exact antipodes of the point of entry at Jerusalem. As they complete their climb there appear above them 'the fair things that Heaven bears' and they see again the stars. And among them, Dante tells us at the beginning of his Purgatorio, are 'four stars never seen except by the first people'. So Kemp imagines Dante as a kind of visionary Kupe, Tasman, or Cook (successive Maori, Dutch, and English discoverers of Aotearoa/New Zealand), viewing the Southern Cross over the South Seas. Dante's Heaven explores New Zealand experience, where 'We are all newcomers', with homage not only to Dante but also to the country's own spiritual cartographers - contemporary writers. There is an eloquent mix of local, historical, mythical, and literary reference.

'Swimming' relishes pure sensation, yet time and selfhood are touched on, and Dante would have recognized 'Madonna-blue'. 'Someone kissed me' alludes to Dante's first glimpse of Beatrice, but the image of the 'moth's wing' recalls the early love-lyric 'Puriri'. Beatrice speaks again in 'He reads his poem aloud', and 'Beatus' fuses Mount Purgatory with the tor at Torbay (which Kemp's former Auckland seaside home overlooks). There, according to local Maori legend, a girl waits for the return of her lover. Kemp's verse continues to broaden in range and develop new strengths.

(Mac Jackson, Emeritus Professor, University of Auckland)

Her recording was made on 9 and 10 July 2007 in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland, New Zealand and was produced by Jeanette McKerchar.

Jan Kemp's Favourite Poetry Sayings:

"Du musst dein Leben andern / You must change your life" - Rainer Maria Rilke - Archaischer Torso Apollos

" if we were God's spies" - Shakespeare - King Lear, V iii 17

"Prosa ist Gehen, aber Lyrik ist Tanzen / Prose is walking but poetry is dancing" - Paul Valéry

"Everything happens very slowly" - Katherine Mansfield

Additional material and useful links

Interview with Dieter Riemenschneider about 'Wild Light'

'Wild Light' features two poems by Jan Kemp. These appear both in their original English and translated by her husband, Dieter Riemenschneider, into German.


2005 MNZM for Services To Literature

2005 MNZM for Services To Literature, Queen's Birthday Honours

Selected bibliography

Nine Poems from Lavigny (booklet), Puriri Press,...

Dante's Heaven, Puriri Press, Auckland NZ, 2006

Only One Angel, University of Otago Press, Dunedin, NZ,...

The Sky's Enormous Jug - love poems old...

The Other Hemisphere, Three Continents Press, Washington...

Ice-breaker Poems (pamphlet), Coal-Black Press, Auckland...

Diamonds and Gravel, Hampson Hunt, Wellington, NZ, 1979

Against the Softness of Woman, Caveman Press, Dunedin,...

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