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Passion for poetry . . . Shirley Gillies, who writes under the name Shirley Grave, is launching her latest collection of poetry, Waiting for the Sugar-Water, at the Oamaru Public Library on Wednesday. PHOTO: PETER BENSON

Shirley Gillies knows rhyming poetry is old-fashioned.

“But what’s in you is there, and you’re stuck with it, ” the Waianakarua poet said.

Mrs Gillies, who writes under the name Shirley Grave, is launching her latest poetry book, So many Suns have Shone, at the Oamaru Public Library on Wednesday night.

It is Mrs Gillies’ fourth collection of poems, and sixth book. She made her first foray into publishing in the 1990s with two autobiographies, Waiting for the Sugar-Water (1992) and Ripples in the Shallows (1999).

These days, she was drawn to poetry more than prose.

“It’s just inside me, that’s all,” she said.

“Sometimes my daughter and I even talk in rhyme . . . just for fun.”

Mrs Gillies, who turns 97 in August, said she was “perpetually writing” and So many Suns have Shone was a collection of poetry she had produced over about a year.

Most of her work was humourous and “fairly light”, sparked by “anything at all”.

“Subject matter comes and goes at a whim”.

Her home overlooks the Waianakarua River, south of Oamaru, and she had always written with a lot of imagination about her surroundings.

She recalls a poem she wrote about a skylark when she was about 9 years old.

“My older brother said to me, ‘But have you ever seen a skylark?’ – and that was a Catch-22 question.”

She had only ever seen the small brown-streaked birds in her imagination.

Mrs Gillies’ father, William George Grave, who died when she was 10 years old, was a well-known Oamaru solicitor and explorer. She inherited an interest in poetry from her mother, Isabella Grave, who regularly wrote amusing “witty ditties”.

“She was clever with her writing. Just sort of small rhymes, and quite funny usually.”

That was why Mrs Gillies used her maiden name for her writing.

“It’s where it came from.”

Mrs Gillies has lived in North Otago all her life. She started her secondary schooling at Waitaki Girls’ High School, where she was friends with Janet Frame, but later transferred to school in Timaru.

“My mother thought I was a dreamer – and she was right,” she said.

“I wasn’t doing well at school, and she thought that maybe a change might improve my capabilities.”

Mrs Gillies has amazing stamina for her age. She drives to Oamaru every second Friday to play the piano at Iona Home. She has been performing for rest-home residents for more than 26 years.

Gardening was another passion. Every tree surrounding her Waianakarua home she planted herself – ”and it’s a forest out there”.

Mrs Gillies married and had two children. She was widowed in her early 40s, and her son contracted polio at age 5, two months before the vaccine became available. He was on crutches for life.

“That was hard. But everybody has something in life.”

Asked if she planned to publish more books, Mrs Gillies pointed to the sky.

“He’s the one that decides that.”

So many Suns have Shone is being launched at the Oamaru Public Library on June 16 at 6pm