Arguably, an artist's greatest tool is the space in which she or he works. It is no surprise, then, that a mystique has grown up around the workshops of writers. After he moved into a Northcote bungalow with his second wife Margaret Edgcumbe in 1981, Kendrick Smithyman placed a large desk, complete with creaky draws, an ashtray, and a typewriter, in his new home's capacious basement, close to a sliding door that provided a view of an elegantly overgrown backyard, and worked happily on a slew of new manuscripts. For admirers of Smithyman’s poetry, the Northcote basement acquired a certain mystique – like Proust’s cork-lined room, Dylan Thomas’ boatshed, and Malcolm Lowry’s Vancouver Island shack, it was a place where the raw materials of language were turned into great art.
As different and distant from each other as they were, the workshops of Thomas, Proust, Lowry, and Smithyman all shared certain characteristics. They were relatively small, they were cluttered, and they were shadowy. The Auckland University of Technology's new Creative Writing Centre offers a very different vision of what a scribbler's work space should look like. A series of brightly-lit, minimally decorated rooms on the third floor of one of the hundred anonymous towers which make up Auckland's Central Business District, the centre might be interpreted as a retort to the messiness traditionally associated with the business of writing.
How could Mike Johnson, a hirsute graduate of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies, a long-time resident on the hippy paradise of Waiheke Island, and a writer who values grotesque images, oddball characters, and self-destructing plots over notions of clarity and efficiency, not seem incongruous in the antiseptic environs of AUT's centre, where he has taught since last year, and where Titus Books recently helped him launch his new novel Travesty?
For the fifty-odd punters who gave a hearty welcome to Travesty, the AUT environment seemed to accentuate Mike's mystery. According to at least some observers, when Johnson read from Travesty, a novel which turns a seedy Auckland boarding house into a sort of mini-purgatory, where the souls of various deceased sinners are deposited by a bumbling or biased God, shadows seemed to enter the oppressively pristine environment of AUT. With their fragile luminous bodies moving against huge blocks of pitch black, Darren Sheehan's illustrations for Travesty also seemed to darken the air of AUT's lab.
The Michael King Writers Centre, which was established in 2005 in an old wooden villa on the southern side of Devonport's Mount Victoria, conforms much more closely to traditional notions of how a writer's workshop should look. Visitors to the Centre must leave their wheels in the carpark outside Devonport Primary School, a spot which seems to serve as a sort of base camp for the kite-flyers, pot-smokers, and dog-trainers who habitually ascend Victoria, and labour up a winding length of tar guarded by semi-derelict puriri. The King Centre sits on a piece of flat land, thirty or so metres from the summit. The Centre's current occupant is Bill Direen, and it was Bill who suggested last Thursday's party to celebrate the fortieth issue of the avant-garde, Auckland-based literary journal brief.
When Skyler and I arrived at the Centre we found Ted Jenner, the editor of issue number forty, sitting in a deserted living room, between a shelf of Michael King's books and a brand-new painting of the poet Bob Orr. Ted was gazing back across the harbour he had just crossed; the colour-coded lights of the port of Auckland were flickering and flashing at him through the blue twilight. "It's like an enormous abstract painting" Ted decided. "Mondrian.
Victory Boogie-Woogie." The painting of Orr, who has spent most of the last few decades guiding boats into the port, is one of the dozens of portraits of Kiwi scribblers distributed through the King Centre's rooms. I found Bill Direen in the kitchen, muttering to a bowl of mulled wine and a tray of deformed gingerbread men, and asked him if he felt intimidated by the presence of so many of the mighty dead, not to mention the mighty undead. Did the eyes of Allen Curnow and Ian Wedde follow him, as he made his way down that hall to the study every morning? "Just think of me as the caretaker - and the cook" Bill smiled, as he showed me the little burnt men he had named after the half dozen or so editors brief has had since it was founded by Alan Loney back in 1995. "Don't worry, I've got your name on one of them", he said, gesturing towards the creature intended to memorialise my tenure at the helm of the journal in 2005-2006. Later in the evening, after a series of readings by contributors to the fortieth brief, an ominously sober Richard Taylor took ostentatious delight in devouring several former editors. I read a few excerpts from the manifesto of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time on Pig Island, guzzled a few of the beers which Creative New Zealand had kindly provided, and then headed home, so that I could watch the latest episode of Survivors, the remake of the classic BBC post-apocalypse TV series from the '70s. (How can any work of literature compete with the apocalypse?)
Before I left the King Centre, though, I chatted with a schoolteacher and lover of literature who emigrated from Poland to New Zealand sometime in the '90s, and who came to the launch even though she had not seen a copy of brief beforehand. "This event reminds me of the meetings we held back in the eighties" she said, "to talk about literature, when it was very dangerous to do so. Just a few people, talking, drinking, reading poetry. We had to do it secretly, and you don't have to do that, but with everyone watching television, television, television, and with everyone so, well disinterested in culture, and in history - well, you are like an underground movement here!" I didn't tell her about my appointment with Survivors.