Renee Liang

Renee Liang
Image credit John Rata

We’re so excited the incredible Renee Liang is judging the Monica Taylor Poetry Prize 2024!

Dr Renee Liang 梁文蔚 MNZM is a poet, paediatrician, playwright and essayist. After exploring open mics in Broken Hill, Australia, Renee joined the MC team at Poetry Live, becoming known for running slams. Since then Renee has become a jack of literary trades: she wrote, produced and nationally toured eight plays; makes operas, musicals and community arts programmes; and her poems, essays and short stories are widely anthologised. The Bone Feeder, a play adapted into opera for the Auckland Arts Festival in 2017, was one of the first Asian mainstage works in New Zealand and one of the opening works at the Waterfront Theatre in Auckland.

Melanie Kwang caught up with Renee to talk about her writing, her advice for those entering the Monica Taylor Poetry Prize for the first time, and how the literary community is evolving.

Hi, Renee! Do you have any advice for new poets, or those thinking of entering the Monica Taylor Poetry Prize for the first time?

My advice is the same as every other poet’s: read. Then write!

To break this down, there are so many places to find beautiful poetry. I found it first at open mics (I MCed at Poetry Live for four years). I still love the excitement of hearing a piece for the first time, feeling the audience respond alongside my own rise of emotion, and being able to see the poet reacting to that response. The buzz of ‘in real time’! But there are also so many books and zines and anthologies, and they’re so accessible—everyone’s online and responding and the culture of poets tends to be generous. Though if a library and old-fashioned pages are your thing, nothing beats a lovely browse at your local. Pick up a back copy of takahē while you’re there!

Paula Green’s Poetry Shelf ( is a delicious round up of poetry, readings and interviews about poetry, and she’ll point you to new Aotearoa books and poets. But if your community is more niche, there are so many international online journals, from emerging Asian diasporic voices to the transgender community. Immerse yourself. Breathe it in. Find out what lights your brain on fire, stabs you in the pit of your stomach, makes your skin buzz. Then pick up a pen or open your computer, and write. If I want to write poetry one of the best things I can do is read others’ work.

Can you give us an idea of what you’re looking for from this year’s competition?

One of the best things about open mics is that they change from poet to poet, so from the beginning, my tastes have been wide. But I love poetry that makes me physically react. Maybe it’s an image that catches on the hooks of my brain, or makes the back of my nose tingle. Maybe it’s a story that comes back to haunt me every morning when I wake up. 

Writing poems like these requires a strong connection to the subject matter and skill in the handling of the medium (words). I’d urge writers to think about the white spaces on their page, what they are leaving out for the reader to fill in. Knowing what to leave out takes confidence and experience.  

But the connection to the reader—that’s a subtle magic I have no tips for. You’ll know it when you share it for the first time, so also, test your drafts out on friends/random strangers then edit, edit, edit.

What excites you about contemporary poetry? Who are some local poets who have caught your eye?

You know, I’m so excited to see who is getting published these days. The D-word gets over used, so instead of exclaiming over the ‘diversity’ why don’t we celebrate that we are now recognising that so many lived experiences are real, representative, and worth sharing? (It should be obvious, I know.) It’s not just ethnic or rainbow communities starting to see themselves represented on stage and page, it’s also people who have lost a parent to dementia or been gaslit or are science nerds or call out violent racism.  

Writers like romesh dissanayake, Rajorshi Chakraborti, Nathan Joe, Ariana Tikao, Emma Sidnam and Mohamed Hassan are breaking barriers of topic and form. It’s telling that none of these writers can be defined by a single label—they’re all multi hyphenates, switching to the best form for each story they want to tell.

Exciting as all this new growth is, it’s worth also remembering those who led the way—and who are still very much breaking new ground. I’m super proud of my friend Chris Tse, the Poet Laureate, who isn’t scared of calling out injustices, including people trying to rewrite the narrative of our Chinese NZ community. I still quote from one of the very first poetry books written by a Chinese New Zealander, Cup by Alison Wong, a miracle of restraint and detailed observation. But omg, the things Tusiata Avia is doing by being unafraid to call things out, being smarter and sassier than all her detractors—she is my hero.

How have you noticed your own writing practice evolve over the course of your career?

I moved from being primarily a poet, to mostly writing for theatre, and then I realised that my policy of saying yes to new things seemed to pay off, so it kinda exploded into nearly every other writing genre. But moving from one form to another helped me realise that no skill is ever wasted: my understanding of rhythm and breath from performing poetry later helped when I had to write libretto and lyrics. Working on full-length plays really upped my plotting game. Character work for theatre feeds back into my understanding of what can be left unsaid, and makes me a better poet.

I’m not sure I’ve evolved, as much as gathered a bunch of skills that somehow managed to weave together to form a stable base. So now when I take on a new task, I have increasing confidence I’ll be able to pull it off. Not just writing either: the craft of storytelling and reading/listening reaches into other spheres, for example my work in clinical medicine.

I can’t stress enough the importance of going out and experiencing others’ work. We have such a rich arts culture, at least in the main centres, but even if you’re in the regions you can find your community and there are also virtual communities. Seeing what others have done makes me realise what I can explore in my own work. It makes me feel like I’m in a shared space, part of a conversation, adding my own strands to the weave. If you’re angry, if you’re sad, at least you’re not alone. It’s a great time to be a writer.