Robin Hyde (pen name for Iris Wilkinson), one of New Zealand’s best poets, novelists and journalists, is widely praised for her wit, compassion, and imagery, as well as for the power and emotional accuracy of her writing. She is credited with ‘rewriting women’s experiences’ and inventing the concept of the New Zealand ‘OE’. A prolific journalist with a social conscience, she wrote articles on a staggering range of subjects. Hyde was also determined, courageous, rebellious and unconventional. You can read more about her here and here.
Robin Hyde’s life story is fascinating and the range of her work is astonishing, but she’s probably not as well-known to a younger audience as other New Zealand writers like Katherine Mansfield or Janet Frame. The reference to her being a user of words comes from the Robin Hyde plaque on the Wellington Writers’ Walk.
Two books published by The Cuba Press launched on March 1, both centring on Robin Hyde and her life and work, hope to change that.
The Uppish Hen and Other Poems, edited by Juanita Deely, illustrated by Dïne, is a collection of children’s poems written by Robin Hyde 90 years ago as a present for her son when he was four years old.
Iris and Me by Philippa Werry is an imaginative account of the adventures of one of Aotearoa’s most significant writers, presented in a form that Hyde herself would have loved—the verse novel. It was the runner-up for the NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize 2022.
Questions to Philippa from Juanita
You’ve written a number of children’s and YA novels, but this is your first verse novel. How did you find writing in verse?
It was a big challenge and something totally different for me, although I’ve written poetry for the School Journal and various anthologies. I didn’t even know much about verse novels until I did a schools’ tour in 2019 and Gillian Ross, the wonderful librarian at Bluestone School in Timaru, described how much her students loved reading them. Back home again, I borrowed lots of verse novels from the library and decided to try and write one. Initially it was going to be for 8–12-year-olds, as at Bluestone School, but the verse novels I liked best were often biographical and the subject matter of this one made it more suitable for an older audience.
Iris Wilkinson is the subject of your book. How did that come about?
I’ve always felt drawn to and fascinated by Robin Hyde, both as a writer and as a person. I don’t think I’m alone in this! For me, it’s partly because I grew up in Wellington, like her. I’ve lived in and around the same suburbs that she did. She was one of the very few NZ writers that we studied at university, and I can relate to her yearning and determination to be a writer. When I settled on the idea of a verse novel about a real person, she was top of my list.
Knowing Iris’ life, there are many topics you could have focussed on. What theme did you choose?
I started off thinking I would simply tell the story of her life, and I’ve still done that in flashbacks, but the story is largely focused on her trip to China in 1938 when she reported from behind the lines of the Sino-Japanese War. Other themes I hadn’t expected emerged during the writing of it, to do with friendship, the lure of travel and the idea of home.
[Robin] wrote across such a wide range of genres that there is something there for everyone, and the story of her life demonstrates great determination, bravery and courage in often difficult circumstances
Tell us about the research you did before you began writing Iris and Me?
Lots of research! First of all, I read everything of hers I could find: books, poetry, newspaper and magazine articles, and her journals and letters, as well as biographies and anything else I could find out about her. Then I had to fill in the many gaps for things I didn’t know about New Zealand and China in the 1930s, in particular the Sino-Japanese War which preceded World War II. The biggest highlight (probably one of my biggest research highlights ever) was requesting to see her passport, which is in the National Library. It was astonishing and very moving to be able to handle something which had been so vital to her and her travels.
Why is Robin Hyde relevant to young New Zealanders?
She was writing in the 1920s and 1930s, but has a surprisingly modern voice. She had a heart for the downtrodden and oppressed and was often the victim of injustice and society’s attitudes herself. She wrote across such a wide range of genres that there is something there for everyone, and the story of her life demonstrates great determination, bravery and courage in often difficult circumstances. I think there is much in her life and work that young New Zealanders would respond to.
Questions to Juanita from Philippa
You were good friends with Iris’s son Derek, how did that come about?
I made a documentary about Robin Hyde and got to know Derek while filming and interviewing him at his home in the bush in the Waitākere Ranges. We became friends because we had much in common and I was charmed by both his wit and his life philosophy. We laughed a lot, especially over his crazy stories. He was a special man.
One afternoon [Derek] recited The Uppish Hen and told me it was the first poem in a handmade book of poetry written for him by his mother
When and how did you first find out about the poems?
Derek often recited lines from his mother’s poems while we were talking. One afternoon he recited The Uppish Hen and told me it was the first poem in a handmade book of poetry written for him by his mother. He had found it in his Christmas stocking when he was four years old in 1934. On the cover Robin Hyde had written she wanted to have them printed ‘with funny little pictures one fine day’, so I devised a plan to publish the book and put it in Derek’s Christmas stocking as a surprise. Very unfortunately he became ill and passed away in 2021 before that transpired.
What do you think Derek (and Iris) would have thought about this book?
Derek’s widow Lyn Challis has assured me Derek would have loved this publication—it was immensely gratifying to receive her praise.
Working with my illustrator was divine. I believe the illustrations are amusing and may even exceed Robin Hyde’s expectations. This book of poetry was made with aroha.
I hope Kiwis will savour this NZ poetry collection every bit as much as they savour English and American poetry
Have you got a favourite poem (or poems) in the collection?
My personal favourite is Starlings. It works on two levels; one for children, the other for adults. ‘The starlings are singing high up in the chimney’ has a lovely rhythm and conjures a strong image for children, while the line ‘they’ve a pity for us in the strange human city’ prompts adults to think about our life in this world.
What is your hope for this book?
I hope it becomes a book where adults take a child on their knee, and together enjoy the sound of the rhyme and rhythm; that children take pleasure spotting different elements of each poem in the illustrations; and that the poems are cherished. Furthermore, I hope Kiwis will savour this NZ poetry collection every bit as much as they savour English and American poetry.
Iris and Me
By Philippa Werry
Published by The Cuba Press
The Uppish Hen and Other Poems
By Robin Hyde (edited by Juanita Deely)
Published by The Cuba Press