Kay McKenzie Cooke


From the age of eighteen, Joni Mitchell has been for me a kind of seer, a lodestar, a touchstone … the poetry in her songs ringing as clear as my city’s Town Hall clock when it strikes mid-day, the chimes on a still day carried across the harbour to me in my home by the sea.

'You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line'

Lines from the song, 'Hejira' written and performed by Joni Mitchell


Cover of my book Upturned; cover illustration a painting by Michael D. Cooke

Upturned is my fourth poetry book and the first of my books to be published by The Cuba Press in Wellington, New Zealand. I couldn’t be happier with the team at that independent press and the expert, supportive and engaged way they got behind my book. Due to Covid, a lot of the work; editing, polishing; adding, extending etc. happened while the country was in lockdown. However as the edits and layout, arrangement and structure were all achieved through video, texts, tandem online editing, phone calls and emails, it was no problem to surge on through.

Knowing that for my previous collections I’ve used my son’s art work, the team spent some time looking through his website and spotted how well the image (featured above) would fit the book. The result is a striking cover of which I am inordinately proud.

They also helped me choose the title for the collection. I usually find choosing a title for a poetry collection very difficult. The title we eventually chose comes from a poem that is in the book; one which I wrote about ten years ago but has also turned out to be apt for a book published in the middle of Covid’s wild ride.

A sense of dislocation comes through many of the poems (all written pre-Covid.) The poems often respond to a world upturned; of things being the wrong way up; whether that be caused by travel or simply by life events both positive and negative, such as parenting or death. The pandemic and all its ramifications running parallel to the book’s production, launch and promotion, could not be ignored and was in itself, upturning. Putting together a book in that altogether unusual, upturned year, also added to the appropriateness of the book’s title.

Joni’s song ‘Hejira’ speaks of leaving the familiar, travelling and experiencing stuff outside usual spheres; experiencing events that impact on the full range of a person’s senses. For me the song conveys a feeling of stunned loneliness and dislocation. It’s a song very personal to Joni – all the songs on the album of the same name could be described as deeply personal. In fact all of Joni’s songs by their very nature are deeply personal. But along with the personal, comes an invitation to respond and recognise. In some ways, what Joni is describing is what I felt I was experiencing through Upturned‘s 2020 journey. It is also what I experienced on one of my trips to Berlin – as described in a section of the book.

Four months after the book was launched and during a time when Covid was being successfully kept at bay, I flew from my home in Dunedin to Wellington where Cuba Press editor and promotions manager Mary McCallum, with customary efficient, friendly and kindly expertise (added to by a dose of spontaneous magic) organised some poetry readings.

While in Wellington, I caught up with my brother and sister who live up there. It was so good to see them, especially in the midst of Covid when a lot of family get-togethers couldn’t happen. Fortunately at that time the country was in a Covid-free space for which we were feeling very thankful. Tragically, however, towards the end of my stay, my brother in law suffered a fatal heart attack. While I was grateful to be on hand for my sister and to be able to support her through the shock and grief, it did turn the kaleidoscope from bright delight to a more serious, intense and sadder pattern.

The shock and grief also meant that I didn’t have the heart to read at another poetry reading arranged by Mary, one to be held in Palmerston North. The reading went ahead without me and by all accounts was a happy event. I received kind messages from Mary and the other poets involved, expressing their condolences and care. This meant a lot. Kindness always does.

From there I attended the Word Christchurch literary festival, where I was a reader in the Poet Laureate’s Choice event. Despite feeling I was in a mist of mourning (mamahi) for most of the time I spent at the festival, the experience has worked its way into the fabric and added its own particular colour and texture to my Upturned experience of 2020.

Once back home again in Dunedin, a November Upturned reading that was supposed to happen in Gore, Southland, never eventuated. A sudden and unexpected snow storm put paid to that.

It truly felt like this book of mine was determined to live up to its name.

Upturned was launched in June 2020 (as it happens, on my 67th birthday) by my good friend the Dunedin artist and writer Claire Beynon with every wish for a smooth and successful voyage. Whether that voyage be by travelling ‘the breadth of extremities,’ or by sticking ‘to some straighter line,’ is beyond my control. Upturned will make its own journey and I trust wherever it does turn up, it will be right side up.