Dark Days in the Oxygen Café

Publications - Poetry

Deadpan cover.tif


Deadpan was brought out by Otago University Press in 2019. The cover features that famous exponent of deadpannery, Buster Keaton.

The blurb reads: The title of James Norcliffe's tenth poetry collection points deftly to the way it conveys big emotions without cracking a smile or shedding a tear. In Deadpan, Norcliffe writes in an alert, compassionate yet sceptical voice.

The books first section, 'Poor Yorick', shares the thoughts of an introspective narrator as he contends with the travails of later life. 'In his hospital pyjamas', Yorick is by turns cheerful and beset by loss, laughing and weeping, comparing the stages of life (and death). The following sections - 'Scan', 'Trumpet Vine', 'Telegraph Road' and 'Five Travellers in a Small Ford' - reach around to mine experience in a world where 'nothing lasts'; not childhood, place nor identity.

An appropriate response to this ephemeral world is to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty, absurdity and surrealsim. 'Deadpan,' writes the author in his introductory essay, 'is the porter in Macbeth pausing to take a piss while there is that urgent banging at the gate. It is Buster Keaton standing unmoved as the building crashes down on top of him. It is my poker-faced Yorkshire grandfather playing two little dicky birds sitting on the wall.'

These poems are concise and contained, using supple, precise language and a gleam of dry and mordant wit. Deadpan is the work of a mature and technically astute poet who is one of New Zealand's leading writers.


Dark Days in the Oxygen Café

Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe was brought out by Victoria University Press in 2016. It was launched at the Christchurch Word Festival in August. The striking cover is from a painting by Noel McKenna 'Food on table, dog begging' (2015).

The blurb reads:

In Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe, James Norcliffe looks over the shoulders of many characters and creatures, bit real and imagined. Poems about Seneca and James Dean sit alongside poems about a Turkmen dictator and an owl man. We share a portentous UFO sighting, a small celebration for Laika the space dog, and Peter the Great being offered an Air New Zealand lolly. These scenes from myth, history, pop culture and personal experience make for a wryly funny, deeply felt collection that contemplates the quirks of shared and personal histories.


- David Eggleton -

'His poems invariably get us to attend more closely to the spirit of existence, to moments of being.'

​'A poetry that risks delight.'

- Clare Barret on the Book Council -

'There is something inordinately satisfying in reading a volume of James Norcliffe’s poems – in knowing that you have a slim volume of them in your handbag...'

- Emma Shi from BooksellersNZ -

'James Norcliffe is a well-known name in New Zealand poetry and the soft, subtle writing of his newest collection confirms why this is so...'

- Roger Caldwell in London Grip -

'James Norcliffe, the veteran New Zealand poet, deserves to be better-known in this country....'


Leaving The Red Zone

The Canterbury earthquakes were, at the same time, a set of universal and deeply personal experiences. To me the strength of this collection is how it brings these two together: the shared and the personal. Here we have 150 or so very idiosyncratic takes on the events. There are such a variety of responses, of voices, of attitudes, of styles: metrical, prosaic, elevated, colloquial, lyrical, meditative, cynical, elegiac and drop-dead funny.

There are poems that dive under the table capturing the immediacy of the moment and there are reflective pieces that follow Wordsworth’s dictum about recollecting emotion in tranquillity.   The earthquakes spurred creativity. That’s no reason to have them of course, but people riding Fiona Farrell’s horse were shaken up and bucked about, and so were their imaginations, and often their very language.  

Here are amazing poems, open eyed and honest, poems to read and re-read. Like so many other communities in our city and neighbourhoods our poets have come together.

Leaving the Red Zone is edited by James Norcliffe and Joanna Preston and published by Clerestory Press, Christchurch. All proceeds will go to the Mayoral Earthquake Relief Fund.


- Paula Green on her blog Poetry Box -

'What I love about James as a poet is that he is prepared to test out all kinds of things when he writes. His poems can make you think about things differently and feel things differently. He writes about all kinds of subjects from sports to celebrations to superstitions to dressing for peace.'


Packing a Bag for Mars

Packing A Bag for Mars came about at the prompting of Dr Glyn Strange of the Christchurch School for Young Writers. Glyn felt that a number of my poems worked well with young readers although not specifically written for them. He felt that a collection of such poems including glosses and teaching notes would be a Good Idea. He enlisted the aid of well-known artist and illustrator of books for children Jenny Cooper, and Packing a Bag for Mars was born.

As the blurb puts it: "The poems, along with Jenny Cooper's witty illustrations, reveal what most teachers and nearly all pupils secretly know - that poetry can be fun to read and fun to write.

Here you'll find poems that play, poems that pick your pocket, poems that will put a smile on your face and pepper your pizza. For the most part they are easily accessible but in case they do puzzle and perplex at times, there are explanatory notes and a guide to the main poetic techniques used.

Even better, there is a helpful interview with a friendly author and writing prompts for each poem, to encourage you to pack your own bag for Mars - or wherever else that poetry may take you.

The book has been very well received by students, teachers and reviewers alike.

Shadow Play


Shadow Play brings together many of the poems written between Villon in Millerton and 2010 or thereabouts. As a result in includes poems written in Tasmania during my time on the Islands of Residencies programme and my time in Iowa during the three months I enjoyed on the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa. In an earlier incarnation and under a different title, the book was one of the three finalists in the inaugural Kathleen Grattan Award as judged by Fleur Adcock. The winner of that competition was Joanna Preston with her terrific collection The Summer King. 

I tinkered with the set and sometime later submitted it to the Proverse International Writing Prize at the suggestion of Vaughan Rapatahana who had had success there with Home, Away, Elsewhere and for which I provided an introduction. Shadow Play was a finalist in 2011 and published in 2012. Dr Gillian Bickley of Proverse felt the book should include an audio CD of the contents and while I was at Otago University this year as children’s writer in residence at the College of Education I took the opportunity to record the entire collection at the audio-visual centre in the Owheo Building, Union Street.

The cover design includes a sculpted figure by Salvador Dali which seems nicely appropriate. Proverse volumes include a preface introducing the book and the writer and I was delighted when my old friend and fellow writer Bernadette Hall agreed to provide one for me. It is both warm and judicious. Proverse also asked me to provide ‘garlands’ or blurby endorsements, and I am grateful to various writers and editors who agreed to supply these: Mike Bartholomew-Biggs of London Grip, Don Bogen of Cincinnati Review, David Eggleton of Landfall, Fiona Farrell, Michael Harlow, and Richard Peabody of Gargoyle.


Villon in Millerton

The poems in Villon in Millerton were largely written in the period following my time in Dunedin  and the publication of Along Blueskin Road and before my time in Iowa with the International Writing Program.

The book’s blurb announces the three sequences that anchor the collection and goes on: “The title sequence imagines a fifteenth-century French poet, Francois Villon, fetching up in the isolated and deserted West Coast town of Millerton; another sequence brilliantly evokes the mysteries of the Indian Rope Trick, while a concluding group focuses on the contradictory character of the nineteenth-century missionary Samuel Marsden. The range of subjects – from the red admiral butterfly to the attack on Baghdad – and tones – from meditation to satire – along with the poet’s acute ear and sharp eye make this book always unexpected and illuminating.”


Along Blueskin Road

Along Blueskin Road was largely the product of my time as Burns Fellow at Otago University in 2000. The road in the title is a road on the Otago Peninsula which heads north towards Blueskin Bay. That Canterbury University Press published the book came about as a result of a chance meeting with the late Richard King who was managing editor and Jeff Field the then director of the press at the Raspberry Cafe in Tai Tapu. The cover is a painting Lyric Rider by Eion Stevens. This was doubly appropriate as the painting not only expresses the tone of the many of the poems but also as two poems in the book Sleep Sleep and The Plug were prompted by Eion's paintings.


Rat Tickling

Rat Tickling came out under the imprint of Sudden Valley Press, a poetry dedicated publishing project developed by Christchurch poet John O’Connor with David Gregory’s help. Its confidence and energy was astonishing. On one occasion they must have set a New Zealand record by launching seven books on a single occasion. Among the poets they have published (in addition to themselves) are Graham Lindsay, Helen Jacobs, John Allison, Mark Pirie, Nick Williamson, Helen Bascand, Frankie McMillan and Tony Beyer. I was hugely grateful to my friend, artist Rudolf Boelee who agreed to design the cover and the book and who did so, assisted by Jayne Joyce, with stylised letter forms inspired by the ‘60’s covers of jazz label Blue Note.  Many of the poems were influenced by the time in Borneo as were the poems in the second section of A Kind of Kingdom.


A Kind of Kingdom

Whereas Letters to Dr Dee was an especially skinny book A Kind of Kingdom turned out to be a somewhat fat collection. I had sent Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press a manuscript I’d called Blue Heart which he liked an agreed to publish. This corresponded with our leaving for Brunei Darussalam and my entering quite a creative period and my beginning to send my work beyond New Zealand. This was partly prompted by my friend and fellow poet John Allison’s successes in having his work accepted offshore. Thus we entered a friendly competition and to this day I continue to send much of my work to journals in the USA, the UK and elsewhere. There were eventually so many new poems that Fergus contemplated a second book, but then had the idea of a breaking with the tradition of a “slim volume” and adding the new poems to the original  collection, albeit in two parts Blue Heart and Disney Fingers, corresponding largely with pre Brunei and Brunei periods. The title comes from a line in the poem June which is in the collection.


Letters to Dr Dee

I am still very fond of this collection. It was published as one of an ambitious series of collections Hazard Press was issuing of NZ and Australian poetry. Rob Jackaman was the series and NZ editor and Philip Mead the Australian editor. In the event, not too many Oz poets  featured – I recall Pete Hay and Jill Jones, but a long list of New Zealand poets had their work included:  Rob Jackaman himself and, among others, John Allison, David Howard, Riemke Ensing, Kevin Ireland, Alan Loney, Graham Lindsay, Peter Olds, Stephen Oliver, Alan Riach, Own Marshall, Bill Sewell, Kon Kuiper and Tom Weston.

Letters to Dr Dee was launched at a book festival in Dunedin in 1994 in the beautiful Staff Club at the university. For some reason Quentin had used a very lightweight paper so the book appeared flimsy to say the least and this was disappointing. Not disappointing was the cover which used an image of a feather, in fact the huge Neil Dawson feather which hangs in the Aotea Centre in Auckland. Neil was a good friend and happy to let us use the feather. He had been a party to the crowd who holidayed at Oaro near Kaikoura, the setting of the opening sequence, dedicated to the memory Jossie Craig another of the party, who had died before the book came out.

The book was one of the three shortlisted for the Poetry Award  at the NZ Book Awards the following year.


The Sportsman

Hard Echo Press, 1986. Shortlisted for the PEN Jessie McKay Award

ISBN: 0-908715-90-0

In the late eighties, I had been publishing occasionally in journals and
magazines here and there in New Zealand including some of our best
(Robin Duddings Islands, which published the title sequence, and
Landfall). When I had gathered sufficient material I sent the ms off to
Hard Echo Press an imprint of Warwick Jordan of the Hard to Find
Bookshop in Onehunga. Warwick was himself a poet and had printed a
number of books by already well-known writers including my friend
David Howard, as well as Tony Beyer, Paddy Richardson, Rosie Scott,
Iain Sharp and Mike Johnson. He liked the material very much and
obtained a publishing grant from the NZ Literary Fund, the forerunner of

Warwick used a very old-fashioned handset and linotype process in
those pre-digital days. The book’s binding was poor (side staples) and
the cover quite bizarre. Warwick thought it appropriate given the title and
the fact that, at the time of publication – 1987 - Auckland was hosting the
first rugby world cup. We were living in China when it was released and
I don’t think I saw the actual book until our return in the beginning of ’88.
It was my first book and I was proud of course, but pride was tempered
by the cover and production standards…