BILL SEWELL was born in Athens in 1951 and died in Wellington in
January 2003. After spending his earlier life in England and various
Mediterranean countries, he moved to New Zealand permanently in 1966.
He began writing poetry when he was 16 and, by the time he died,
had published six poetry collections. ‘Old Man Range’
was first printed in Landfall 204. It is from Bill’s
collection called Theatre Country, to be published by Pemmican
Press in 2003.
Bill very often chose unlikely subjects for his poems, looking in
particular to New Zealand history for inspiration. His first collection,
Solo Flight (1982), includes a sequence on the eccentric
early New Zealand aviation pioneer, Richard Pearse; while his fifth
collection, Erebus. A Poem (1999), revolves around the crash
of the Air New Zealand DC-10 in the Antarctic in 1979. The most recent
collection, The Ballad of Fifty-one (2003), is a sequence
centering on the 1951 Waterfront Lockout.
Bill said about his poetry:‘I aim to make my poems as accessible
as possible, using a wide variety of forms, from ballad stanzas to
haiku. While I am very conscious of the slipperiness and quirkiness
of language, I work hard to achieve a precision of thought, emotion
and image. Many of the poems are designed for public performance,
though I hope that they will also reward solitary reading. I also
like to think that they display a wry humour.’
Much of Bill’s later work was public poetry, often with a political
bite, which laments the mistakes this country has made in the past
and tries to draw out lessons for the present and future. However,
it also has a personal dimension, recording his own anger, grief and
uncertainty at events.
Bill features in several anthologies, including From the Mainland
(1995) and Big Weather: Poems of Wellington (2000). In 2001,
he published the successful anthology, Essential New Zealand Poems,
on which he was working with Lauris Edmond at the time of her death,
and which was shortlisted in the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
Bill edited and contributed to two non-fiction books, Under Review
(with Lauris Edmond and Harry Ricketts; 1997), which is a selection
of review essays from New Zealand Books, and Sons of
the Fathers: New Zealand men write about their fathers (1997).
He also wrote an as yet unpublished non-fiction book on the subject
Bill was Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago (1981, 1982)
and President of the New Zealand Poetry Society (1991-93). He worked
as a university lecturer, book editor and legal researcher, and a
free-lance writer and editor. From 1998 to 2002 he was co-editor (with
Harry Ricketts) of the review journal New Zealand Books.