Ambushing von Stormer
Richard von Sturmer is more versatile than your average writer. After escaping from Westlake High Boys School in the wintry second half of the seventies, von Sturmer hurled himself into New Zealand's nascent punk scene, fronting bands with names like The Plague and The Humanimals and co-writing the classic anti-Muldoon anthem 'There Is No Depression in New Zealand' with his old schoomate Don McGlashlan.
In the eighties von Sturmer moved from the stage to the page and the screen by publishing one of New Zealand's first books of prose poems, We Xerox Your Zebras, and working in various capacities in important films like Martyn Sanderson's adaption of Albert Wendt's novella Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree. By the end of the decade he had developed a deep interest in Zen Buddhism, and today he balances his writing with a senior role at the Auckland Zen Academy.
In September Titus Books will be publishing On The Eve of Never Departing, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories by von Sturmer. Last night the man himself was lured to an address in West Auckland on the pretence of being shown a draft cover for his book, only to be ambushed by a group of admirers that included Michael Arnold, Hamish Dewe, Ted Jenner, Muzzlehatch, Skyler, Alex Jespersen, and yours truly. Muzzlehatch and Alex presented Richard with a bottle of whiskey; I confronted him with a five dollar microphone. The result is an hour-long recording of negigible audio quality and a certain lack of narrative flow.
Muzzlehatch is running a few filter programmes to try to clean up the sound file, so that we can post it online, as the latest Reading the Maps blogcast; in the meantime, though, here is a transcript of an excerpt from last night's chat with Richard.
Ted: Perhaps we could start with a list of Richard's publications?
Scott: But what counts as a publication?
Ted: I'm talking about books, so we start with We Xerox Your Zebras. What year was that?
Scott: But I found an old book in the library, a ratty old book called Songs of the Plague.
Ted: Interesting. But it wasn't Richard's book, was it?
Scott: Yes it was!
Richard: You must have been digging in some obscure corners. That's a collection of the songs I wrote with the punk performance band The Plague. Early...I began as a songwriter. I still read my work out loud as I'm writing it. And I'm collaborating on some songs with Otis Mace, 'Guitar Ace'...
Ted: What's the name von Sturmer mean?
Richard: It means to storm. To storm! To storm a castle...
Scott: Is it Dutch?
Richard: No. Austrian. The name can also refer to soccer - to the people who attack, who storm at the goal...It's a name that looks good on film credits...Have you thought about being von Hamilton?
Ted: Are there any other prominent von Sturmers?
Richard: Yes, there's the jeweller Matthew von Sturmer...
Michael: The man who brought swine flu into New Zealand from Mexico was a von Sturmer.
Richard: Yes. I think he's from another branch...
Michael: Ten dead, so far.
Richard: The original family came five generations ago. All related.
Michael: Maybe eleven.
Richard: Austrians keep the von. The von disappeared from Germany centuries ago. But I'm not Austrian at all...my grandfather was born out wedlock, he took his stepfather's name, which was von Sturmer. My grandfather was an adventurer -he explored the Kimberley coast in the northwest Australia in the Depression era, going some places no white man had visited before - or very few. He was a prospector, a big guy, six foot five, looking for gold, only gold, he threw copper away -
Ted: Was he being paid?
Richard: Yes, he was an employee of the Kimberley Exploitation Syndicate. In those days exploitation was a positive word! 'We're out to exploit the Kimberleys!'
Scott: Well I got in trouble the other day for using the word exploitation. There was a controversy at the Scoop Review of Books, because they were publishing some rhymed doggerel - shocking doggerel - by a woman called Mary Cresswell, who has apparently got a book deal with a prestigious New Zealand publisher, and I tried to explain what I thought poetry is - real poetry, as opposed to doggerel - by quoting Anthony Burgess, who said that 'poetry is the maximum exploitation of words', and I got an e mail from someone criticising me for using the word 'exploitation' in a positive way...
Ted: The maximum exploitation of words...
Scott: The use of all the resources of language, of all shades of meaning...
Ted: It reminds me of something Ezra Pound said...what was it?
Scott: As the former New Zealand correspondent for the Pound scholars' journal you're more likely than me to know...though we have another Poundian in the lounge -
Ted: Hamish! Hamish! Come in here lad!
Scott: Richard, you wrote a sequence of poems called 'Old Ezra' about Ezra Pound and published them in the issue of brief dedicated to war - you were discussing his romance with fascism, and the parrallels and differences between the Second World War and more recent wars...
Ted: Hamish, what did Ezra Pound say?
Hamish: About what?
Ted: That's just it. I can't remember. It's like looking a word up in the dictionary. How are you supposed to find it when you don't know the spelling in the first place?
Hamish: Pound said many things, sir. Some of them were crap.
Richard: I read The Cantos right through when I was eighteen or nineteen. I started reading Finnegans Wake at the same time but gave up. The Cantos are full of garbage and beauty. So much rubbish, but so many pearls. You can pick out the pearls.
Ted: Somebody had a go at me at the Scoop Review of Books. They said I was too obscure. They said I was all Greek. Well, I am a Greek scholar! That's what I do.
Hamish: You might be thinking of Zukofksy...
Scott: The riches of Pound scholarship in this room and we can't -
Richard: Pound said it took a lifetime to produce a good image. I love the clear concrete images in Pound. They're like haiku...
Scott: Was there a particular Canto or set of Cantos you liked?
Richard: Probably the Pisan Cantos. But I also like the early ones, which are Homeric - before everything disintegrates...
Scott: It's ironic that he's an epic poet, and yet he deals in fragments.
Hamish: It's a modern epic. Ours is the age of fragments, sir.
Ted: An epic for the twentieth century.
Hamish: I like the very last Cantos, where the whole structure breaks down, all the arguments break down, and you're left with something very bare.
Scott: Do you think he achieves his aim of writing Paradise in the last Cantos, of getting out of Hell?
Hamish: No I don't, sir. And he doesn't want to. And that's what's so good about the last Cantos. He realises that perfection is impossible. He lets the structure break down, he lets the machine die.
Ted: 'Lie still, and listen to the wind in the trees - that is paradise.'
Hamish: He abandons his political beliefs. He comes back to the world, in its bareness, sir.
Scott: Donald Davie argued a point like that - he said that all the sensuous details in the postwar Cantos, all the beautiful descriptions of birds and insects, showed that Pound had moved away somewhat from the lunatic abstractions of his fascist period, had found his feet again in the world -
Hamish: Quasi-correct, sir...
Scott: But Geoffrey Hill took exception to this, he wrote a poem satirising Davie's view, he thought that the reason Pound wrote so much about insects is that he preferred them to humans - well, to certain types of humans, like Jews...
Richard: Sometimes imperfect works are greater than perfect works. They open up possibilities but don't fully explore them. They give you ideas for your own work...
Ted: But Scott likes Bob Dylan!
Scott: I won't ask you about the influence of Dylan on your work, Richard, but I wondered whether the mixture of chaos and structure in the Cantos might be something that we find in your work, too - I remember that your first book of prose poems We Xerox Your Zebras had no discernable structure, and that you defended this in an interview by quoting Ted's favourite philosopher, Heraclitus -
Ted: Can I jump in here?
Richard: One does not jump into the same interview twice, Ted -
Scott: You said 'the fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings' -
Richard: Right. There is an order to the book but it comes from recurring voices, and from the recurrence of the strange states of mind I drove myself into when I was writing the poems -
Scott: Were you using drugs?
Richard: No! No. I used mind. The mind.
Ted: Cratylus said we could not jump into the same river once.
Scott: The first postmodernist.
Richard: The mind is very powerful. There are also word games in that book, words transmogrifying and then returning to their original states, pinus radiata to penis erectus...if you are a writer you must have a love of words...
Ted: You like games?
Richard: I like structure, and games require structure. I was inspired by the group of French writers known as Oulipo who devised elaborate language games...
Michael: Like Perec's novel which avoids ever using the letter 'e'...
Richard: A lot of my writing is done according to predetermined rules...for instance I have a group of poems written in sections which consist of twenty-six words each. The structure doesn't have to be obstrusive, the reader doesn't even need to grasp it consciously, it can sit at the back of the mind...
Scott: We Xerox Your Zebras is full of surreal imagery - the title is a good example - but it also has a definite sense of place. It's an Auckland book. Like your old friend Don McGlashlan, who's been called 'the quarter acre visionary', you seem to like to mix the surreal with the suburban...
Richard: Yes. I like Breton's commandment - 'make the magical everyday, and the everyday magical'.
Scott: In your next major publication, A Network of Dissolving Threads, which came out from Auckland University Press in the early nineties, there is a more overt structure -
Richard: Yes. I had discovered the Japanese forms - the haiku, and the haibun, which mixes the haiku with prose paragraphs.
Hamish: I prefer We Xerox Your Zebras. Nothing personal, sirs.
Richard: That's okay, Hamish.
Scott: Were these discoveries connected to your interest in Zen Buddhism?
Richard: Yes. Actually I came to Zen through the haiku. And I liked the way the haibun could combine the poetic and the prosaic, make things flow...I was especially inspired by Basho, and his travel book The Narrow Road to the Deep North...later in the nineties I got thrown off the Auckland University Press list, because they decided they didn't want to do any genre-hopping - they didn't want verse and prose together...
Ted: I have also had problems with people who don't think you can mix the two. And a lot of Anglo-Saxons are very backward - they don't even accept that prose poetry exists! The French, they've been writing prose poems for more than one hundred and fifty years - you've got Baudelaire, you've got Rimbaud...they take it seriously. But New Zealanders, oh dear...
Richard: Structure can take many forms. I have bus poems, which I wrote on my half-hour bus journey to work. I'd describe what I saw out the window, and my thoughts. The journey was the structure. Now I'm catching the train, which only takes six minutes, so I'm writing train poems, which have a very different structure...
Scott: Your most recent book is Suchness, which was published by Headworx in 2005, and which is an avowedly Buddhist piece of writing.
Richard: Well, half of it...
Scott: I was wondering whether you see an evolution in your writing which parallels some sort of spiritual journey? I'm interested in the differing treatments of the same themes in different books. I remember an extraordinary poem in We Xerox Your Zebras, a sort of dream piece, a vision, where a mother is lecturing her daughter on mortality, and revealing a series of pictures which depict a human body decaying, becoming a skeleton, but the girl's attention drifts away from this eerie presentation - she looks out the window, and sees a unicorn, or was it an ibex -
Richard: I think it was an ibex -
Scott: An ibex is grazing on the lawn, innocent and perfect. I haven't read the poem for many years - I lost my copy of We Xerox Your Zebras - but it is lodged somewhere in the back of my mind, it's that sort of poem. There's a piece in Suchness which seems to deal with the same subject - it describes your mother dying in hospital - but it's calmer: the narrator of the poem does not turn away from the fact of death, but instead imagines how all of us will die, and how our bodies will decay and rejoin the rest of the universe in some way -
Richard: Yes. The first poem was written soon after my mother's death. It's very raw. Zen teaches you equanimity, I think. I don't see any sort of grand journey in my work, just a quest to remain alert to the world in its details, and a quest for clarity...