Your poem offers an honest, sensory recreation of the Christchurch earthquake. Were you in the city when it struck?
I wasn't in the city. I live in Wellington half an hour's flight north, but within minutes of the February earthquake I had the television on, and so as the aftershocks occurred I had the sense of being there – if not on the ground then in spirit. It had a very strong emotional impact. This was an earthquake that Wellingtonians have been told all their lives to expect. Instead it had happened where an earthquake was least expected. It turns out now that Canterbury has as lively an earthquake heritage as the capital city.
You've written many fictional novels – how does it compare to write a shorter piece of poetry?
Writing a poem siphoned some of that immediate emotional charge. There is an urgency to that particular poem which wouldn't be there if I was to sit down now and write a poem about the quake. The shock wave has stilled and as the earthquakes have become more frequent we have become more used to the event, and as well there's been time to properly absorb its impact.
The other thing that occurred to me is that the quake reinserted some life into the cliché of the word 'suddenly,' a word novelists use very reluctantly. But here was a situation where no other word would do. 'Suddenly', the world turned upside down. It had taken one hundred and fifty years to construct Christchurch. All it took were thirty or forty seconds to unstitch it. Here's another cliché that warrants use – it was astonishing to see. Astonishing. No other word will do. I had the opportunity to walk through the Red Zone last year and the extent of damage was extraordinary. There, another cliché, and worth repeating. It was extraordinary.
How long after the earthquake did you begin to think about writing something like this?
I wrote 'Suddenly' within a fortnight or so of the February earthquake. I just had to respond, I had to write something. Few other events have demanded from me a more urgent response. A poem was as good as a postcard. I had something to say and it could not wait a moment longer.
You took part in the rescheduled The Press Christchurch Writers' Festival after its cancellation due to earthquake damage, held to assist in reinvigorating the city. Do you feel a duty as a writer to create work that explores the devastation that occurred in Christchurch?
Funnily enough, I do feel a duty to respond to the earthquake. It has affected most of the country one way or another. On a more banal level all our insurances have gone up as insurance companies have suddenly taken note of the shaky temperament of the ground on which our lives sit. Since the February 2011 earthquake, I have been down there at least half a dozen times. I am working on a longer response to the quake. One of the keys is to work out my relationship to the event and go from there. It isn't a novel, I'm quite certain of that. I don't want to pretend that I experienced the earthquake as someone in Christchurch would have, but it did have a strong impact and in unexpected ways, and that is what I am currently exploring.