Monday, November 17, 2008

Who needs New York?

When he was asked what the secret to literary success was, the venerable Edmond White reputedly advised his interlocutor to 'buy a ticket to New York'. The notion that writers thrive in massive cities filled with publishing houses is an old one, and still brings waves of migrant scribblers to London and Paris, as well as New Amsterdam. If any young writer is bold or daft enough to make a very different journey, away from the imperial centres to the provincial periphery of culture, then they could do worse than make Dunedin their destination. For over four decades now, the cold little city clinging to the bottom right-hand corner of Te Wai Pounamu has been a centre of literary as well as musical experiment. The small size of the city's artistic community, and the isolation - should I have said insulation? - of that community from the fickle winds of metropolitan fashion have fostered a sense of collective innovation unmatched in other parts of New Zealand. In the 1980s and early '90s the musical innovations associated with the Flying Nun and Xpressway labels were eagerly appropriated by American and British bands hungry for 'authenticity'. Dunedin's writers are not as famous as their musical kin, but they have nevertheless produced an impressive body of work in recent decades, as I noted last year.

One of the nerve centres of Dunedin literary culture is the Circadian Rhythm Cafe, a narrow cosy space where I was lucky enough to perform as a guest last year, on a night when local luminaries Peter Olds, Bill Direen, David Eggleton, and Richard Reeve graced the stage. Comrade Direen is about to swap his pen for his guitar for a few weeks, but he managed to send me this report from a recent gig at the Dunedin, where a line-up of six local scribblers read for their work for an appreciative audience. I was particularly pleased to learn that Peter Olds - New Zealand's first beatnik, adopted son of James K Baxter, reformed pisshead, and Otago Peninsula Zen sage - is still writing and performing his work. I did a long interview with Peter last year, and he's given me permission to put it on the blog next week. In the meantime, here's Bill's report on last week's gig, along with a few photos taken on the night:

SIX DUNEDIN POETS presented by Stuff Legend

Six poets currently living in Dunedin took the stage last night (Thurs Nov 13th) at Circadian Rhythm Cafe. Although the gig followed the great exodus of students from the city, and in spite of five of the six being men, a good number of local poetry lovers of both sexes turned out for a spirited and multifaceted event.

Peter Olds, the most experienced of us, read first, and in a break with his policy of recent years, gave a sample of his work from nearly four decades. Most of these were drawn from the only selection of his work available,
It was a Tuesday Morning (Hazard Press, 2001). Smiles of recognition could be seen as Olds revived poems that had long lain silent. ‘Psycho’, an ode to a car and its passengers and drivers who “roared along Ponsonby Road drunk on rum” was delivered with a self-critical tone devoid of nostalgia. Olds has now reached the stage where he can return to poems written when there were destructive elements in his lifestyle. You could have heard a tatt-needle drop. I read recent work (in English of course) inspired by translations (into French) by former Oulipo poet Michele Metail. The originals which she studied and translated were ancient Chinese; the form, called Huiwenshi, can be read backwards as well as forwards, or even in circular fashion. Chinese is more polysemic than English. Any Chinese character may be noun, verb, adverb or adjective but this is rare in English. My Huiwenshi were not translations, they adopted the form. I had taken them as far as I could without reading them to anyone and wasn’t sure how people would react. Feedback was constructive.
M.C. David Eggleton introduced the surprise guest of the evening, Jeanne Bernhardt. Her poems steamed along, though she shrugged them off a little and I suspect that her mind is more in prose mode at present given the recent launch of her novella Fast Down Turk: a study of depression, drug addiction, descent into poverty, hallucination, and a sequence of rather ugly sexual encounters. So it was great that she then gave us an extract from it. Her publisher was not present to sell copies, but I think he would have sold a few! David called for a timely break and the first readers mingled, taking in reactions to their work. Richard Reeve was seen gingerly imbibing naturally brewed beer, which is perhaps a local cure for the Norah virus attack that had obliged him to take this week off work.

After the break, David Karena-Holmes introduced his environmental philosophy and outlined the calamity which New Zealanders and world citizens are facing. He read poems which he had printed out in collectible single-poem editions. Most of these carried an ecological message enriched with his native lyricism. He is concerned with inner spaces as well as outer ones:

though vast we find
the universe, the mind,
even of the blind,
must be just as vast.
( ‘A Star in Space’) The compere himself took the stage and did not mess around! Eggleton’s intense declamatory lines steadily wove together a fairly bleak depiction of consumer society. An impassioned performance by the Kiwi ranter.
Then the aforementioned Reeve let his shirt all hang out so that it resembled a stylish soutane. Neither the virus nor beer had blunted his style. He read with commanding apocalyptic cadence.

There was something for everyone. Jeanne Bernhardt’s poems and the chance to hear an extract from her speedy (cracky?) novella. David Eggleton entering his prime, finding a middle way between expression and impression. The assertive Reeve (who must be thanked for instigating the evening in the first place). David Karena-Holmes’ ecological diatribes. As for Olds and myself, local writer Lani Cole had this to say the following day:

Really liked the variety and the atmosphere last night. Loved hearing Peter Olds read the poem that got my 6th form boys thinking art could be relevant to their lives and enjoyed hearing everyone else. Your own poems were fine, entertaining pieces; I can hardly imagine the work that went into them.

The evening finished with spontaneous encores (is there any other kind?) from Olds, Bernhardt, Reeve, and your bleary-eyed writer. Afterwards, “Nunc est bibendum.” [Now is the time for drinking!] Then off to Auckland for the beginning of The Bilders tour!

Bill Direen


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dunedin's a dump over-run with undead and ghouls.

3:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Richard Taylor? He's posting some real crazy things, he's at

3:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am about to shift to Dunedin and this post has cheered me up no end. Thx :-)

3:41 pm  
Blogger maps said...

You'll have a great time!

12:48 pm  
Blogger Olivia Macassey said...

Maps - are there any other cafes etc you recommend in Dunedin?

Next week I'm spending a few days there...

4:33 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

anonymous - thanks for the plug - My Blog I feel is worth a look - it is kind of a hobby of mine...

But it's not certain, but unlikely, I will be doing any live readings for some time if at all.

The "scene" in Dunedin looks great - I was there once (I wasn't "into poetry at the time though) and it was bloody cold place. I met a Canadian in Dunedin at a back packers in the 70s who was touring and he said he felt colder in NZ than in Canada - and even in Auckland as the temperatures vary so much people are usually not properly dressed for the cold - result - many many Aucklanders or JAFFAS and other Kiwis get colds - I dress warmly and haven't had one cold this winter in fact nothing all year.

I am reading novels etc by Robin Hyde (not Rodney Hyde!)...

...and I just finished "Nightwood" by Djuna Barnes - she has the denseness and incredible brilliance of language only I think of say Patrick White...

Hyde's "Wednesday's Children" I really got into on the second attempt. Her case seems rather tragic - interestingly she supported the Chinese revolution etc or at least she took a strong interest in China and other politics and history (she met Rewi Alley) and was a very acute journalist... she committed suicide tragically at a young age of about 33 or so...

"He's posting some real crazy things, he's at"

I hope to think there is a "controlled craziness" going on"...!!

12:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

10:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

10:50 am  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Olivia,

Bill took me to the Crown Tavern, a slightly run-down place on the Mornington edge of the CBD (if Dunedin has a CBD!)which Bill Manhire's Dad owned, and demanded to see an old flagon bottle that had Manhire snr's name on it. The guy behind the bar, who had been busy telling racist jokes about the mayor of Dunedin, a Chinese NZer who apparently owns the Crown, agreed with great reluctance.

The Crown has other literary connections: Maurice Duggan blew most of his Burns fellowship money there back in the early '60s - in fact, he was so popular that the other denizens of the bar threw a big party in his honour before he flew back to Auckland.

Nextdoor to the Crown is the Dragon Cafe, a cheap and filling Chinese joint which Peter Olds honours in the title of one of his recent chapbooks (see

Some tourists visit the Captain Cook, which is located near the university, because of its connections to the early Flying Nun scene, but the place has changed a great deal - it's full of pokies now, is far too well-lit, and has awful flourescent carpet. The beer's reasonably cheap, though.

There's a neat little cafe in the Mornington shops where I interviewed Peter Olds for hours - it's an old school push tray, you can get mousetraps, a 1950s South Island delicacy, and the woman behind the counter has an old-fashioned matronly air. Brisk, but kind. Ah, Dunedin!

11:36 am  
Blogger Olivia Macassey said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dunedin is the home pf Brian Turner, the rgeatest NZ poet, so why don't any of the awfully clever poetasters at this blog mention THAT?

4:15 pm  
Blogger Olivia Macassey said...

Thanks for the cafe recommendation; I won't have time to do tourist stuff but a good mousetrap sounds like just the thing.

I'll also heed Richard's warning and bring my thermals.

4:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

be better
known if
he knew
where to break a

4:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Maps,

When are The Bilders playing Auckland?

8:31 am  
Anonymous alcohol rehab said...

Jeanne Bernhardt poems is a good one to read especially the part about drug addiction. She is telling that drugs won't certainly do no good to society.

6:52 am  
Anonymous said...

News Flash: The world's poets are still landing on the island of Manhattan in New York City, despite the criminal rents and local posturing. Try it one can claim houseguest status with me while you peddle your wares.

6:29 pm  
Blogger Scott Hamilton said...

Thanks for the invite mate, but in return let me ask you to join my mates in Nuku'alofa, which has become the New New York since the sad passing of Lou Reed...

8:27 pm  

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