Getting to Know Harry Ricketts

This week's Tri 2 Talk shines a spotlight on legendary English Literature Professor Harry Ricketts - poet, author, actor and Vic Books regular.

We interviewed Harry during last year's lockdown and sat down with him again this week before his new English Lit courses begin and to celebrate his new poetry collection, Selected Poemsout today. He will also be appearing at Epilogue, part of this month's Loemis Festival in Wellington, alongside Chris Tse, Ruby Solly and Nick Ascroft.

Harry talks to us about sitcoms and acting, Bob Dylan and Jane Austen and how he loves a literary happy ending. 



What’s your day job?

Professor in the English Programme at Vic.


What's your connection to Vic Books?

I come here two or three times daily for infusions of extra hot flat white in my green Fire-King mug and to sit and think. I also find it a good place to meet students, colleagues and friends.

What's your favourite part of campus life?

Vic Books.


Why do you like having student meetings at Vic Books?

Very good coffee, friendly, non-threatening atmosphere, a place with books, but not a staff member's office.


You’re a well known face around Vic Books, does it feel a bit like Cheers for you? Where everyone knows your name?

It does feel like that a bit, though I'm not sure quite which character I'd like the Vic staff to think I resemble! A university bookshop would be a good scenario for a soap opera; someone should write it. 


Selected Poems, your latest collection of poetry, is published today - congratulations! Tell us a little more about it.

This is a selection drawn from 11 collections of my poems plus a few new ones. It's hard to talk about your own work, but there are poems about family, relationships, different places I've lived, things that deeply preoccupy me. I like to think my poems are both serious and playful at the same time.


You have taught various courses for the International Institute of Modern Letters. Who are some of the notable people you have seen come and go during your time there?

I have mostly taught CREW 257, a creative non-fiction paper. Undoubtedly the biggest star I've been lucky enough to teach on that course is essayist and poet Ashleigh Young, though there have been many other bright presences like Maggie Barry, Alison Benge, Paul Diamond and Megan Dunn. The most notable IIML postgraduates I've supervised are Airini Beautrais, Stephanie de Montalk, Therese Lloyd and Lawrence Patchett - all fantastic writers. Luminaries I have seen shining at a distance include Tusiata Avia, Hera Lindsay Bird and Eleanor Catton, all scarily talented.


What's been your favourite collaboration here on campus? 

Acting for the last twenty years in performances of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound for ENGL 114 students.


You have been at the university for nearly 40 years, how has the university changed? 

The main physical change on campus for me has been the creation of the Hub which includes Vic Books. This area was previously a wind-picked space where students shivered and played hacky sack. There have been a few other major shifts. When I started, Vic was mostly a teaching institution (with a fair number of mature students). Now research is, rightly, as or more important. At the same time, academics now have to do exponentially more admin, which gnaws away at both teaching and research. Last year, of course, due to coronavirus, there has been the shift to distance teaching - a seismic (and I hope temporary) change.


We interviewed you last year during lockdown – it's great to see and hear you and your students discussing creative writing face-to-face in our café again. How has teaching changed for you since lockdown a year ago? 

Dual delivery has been a big techno-challenge for a Luddite like me. 


What is your favourite text to teach? 

Very hard question. One favourite is Carol Ann Duffy's poetry collection The World's Wife; another, Antonia Forest's YA novel Peter's Room; another, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.


One piece of advice for your students:

If possible, take courses with staff you gel with.


If you could develop and teach a course on any subject, what would you choose and why?

Tricky. I like all the courses I currently teach: popular literature, modern poetry, children's literature, Victorian literature, creative non-fiction. I guess a new course I should ideally like to develop and teach would be a creative writing course that combined short fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Or a course on song lyrics (Bob Dylan to Nadir Reid) and their relationship to poetry.


What are you reading at the moment? What are you enjoying about it?

I'm deep in Virginia Woolf's The Years, which I've never read before. The novel moves a large cast of very different but connected characters through time, from 1880 to the 1930s, and so far I feel I'm inside every one of them.


Which literary character do you most identify with and why?

Anne Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion. She gets a second chance at happiness.


Hardback or Paperback?



Black or white coffee? Milk?

Extra hot flat white.