In his younger years, David Howard used to blow things up.

It was all in a good cause — or, at least, an entertaining one — as one of New Zealand's top pyrotechnicians creating epic firework displays at public events, All Blacks games and concerts like Metallica and Janet Jackson.

Now a poet, playwright and founding editor of literary magazine Takahe, Howard's year is beginning on a note as bright as any of his firework displays. His poetry collection The Ones Who Keep Quiet is on the Ockham NZ Book Award's 2018 long list while he's also been named as a recipient of one of the country's foremost literary fellowships.

Dunedin-based Howard shares the 2018 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship with well-known Auckland playwright Carl Bland. They'll split an annual stipend of $20,000 and have four months each at the Sargeson Centre near Auckland's Albert Park.


Both will work on plays and it's the first-time two playwrights have received the fellowship in the same year. Howard's is about a seance where the ghost of writer Katherine Mansfield is summoned; Bland is writing a hostage drama set in a pie shop.

Both agree the chance to work for a sustained period on a specific project is welcome, allowing them to hone their respective ideas and shape more focused and sharply written scripts.

Bland is a second-generation theatre veteran but Howard, who knew he wanted to write from the time he was 12 years old, took a more circuitous route into fulltime writing. With a young family to support, he took a series of part-time labouring jobs, eventually finding himself working for a pyrotechnics company.

He rose through the ranks and went out on his own, becoming one of the best in the industry, but the urge to write still burned. In his late thirties, he scaled down his business so he could make time to write.

"It's possible to plot a whimsical parallel between the silence that underwrites a poem and the space that is articulated by fireworks," says Howard. "I use explosives to 'write' on the night so that an audience can say they've 'seen the light'.

"I want the same response from my readers; the sense that something wonderful has announced itself, however briefly … In both professions it is necessary to connect apparently disparate elements in order to make things whole."

Katherine Mansfield will be a central figure in his play but Howard says summon spirits and you may not always get the ones you want, so she'll be joined by spirits from around the world and different times.

"There's potential for great comedy because of the mismatch that can occur between the spirits you summon."

Meanwhile Bland's play starts with a bank robbery-gone-wrong which sees the robber holed up, with hostages, in a neighbouring pie shop.

"My work can sometimes look like comedy farce, but there's always a deeper theme, in this case social isolation and identity, which I approach through humour.

"The fellowship will help me put some time aside to concentrate on the play without worrying about other things."

The fellowship's previous recipients include Alan Duff, Michael King, Marilyn Duckworth and Janet Frame.