'I like to complicate the stories': Peter Simpson on art, publishing, drive-by shootings, and the spectre of Muldoon
[Every tribe needs its learned elders - men and women who have, over long years of listening and observation, become authorities on and guardians of the rich history and lore of their people. If Pakeha New Zealand represents some sort of tribe, then Peter Simpson surely deserves to be considered one of the guardians of the better parts of its history and culture. In a career spanning more than four decades, Simpson has become an authority on the ways that Pakeha artists have tried to make sense of their situation on these strange islands at the bottom of the world.
Simpson's knowledge is rooted in his ability to befriend and listen to the people he studies, and to observe their work carefully. He believes in the social and political importance of the arts, and tries to pass on his knowledge in language that is democratically accessible. Simpson's forthcoming book on the unjustly neglected South Island painter Leo Bensemann shows that his enthusiasm for research and writing remains undimmed. I recently asked Simpson some questions about his work, and about the experiences and thinking that lie behind it...]
Peter, you're renowned for both the lucidity and the range of your writing about New Zealand literature and visual art. Unlike some of our other leading arts scholars - CK Stead and Hamish Keith are two that come to mind - you seldom write polemically about your subjects, and you tend to focus on work that enthuses rather than irritates or offends you. Is there a 'programme' of sorts, or at least a thematic thread, that unites your work, a barrow that you want to push, or do you find the idea of barrow-pushing uncongenial?
It’s true, I don’t have much of a taste for polemic in critical writing. When I’m writing reviews of books or art shows, which I’ve done a lot over the years though not so much recently, I always feel compelled to express an opinion about the success of a book or an exhibition, because that is the reviewer’s role. The reader rightly expects to know what you think about the subject, and to draw attention to its strengths and/or weaknesses as they strike you. But in books or longer essays I tend to choose subjects that I’m enthusiastic about and I always feel more comfortable, to use a cricketing expression, playing off the front rather than the back foot. As for themes in my work, I think there are a few recurring ones. I’ve always been interested in drawing attention to writers or artists who for whatever reason have been ignored or underestimated. Examples would be Ronald Hugh Morrieson, John Caselberg, Leo Bensemann, Mary Stanley, Alan Brunton, Charles Spear. This is partly because I think it is a way of being useful to the wider culture, and partly because the outsiders, the neglected, the overlooked, often have a lot to tell you about the culture and the way its narratives have been written. I’m always interested in thickening the texture of the culture by highlighting people outside the mainstream.
On the other hand, I’m also drawn to some of the major figures in the culture — examples in my work would be Colin McCahon, Allen Curnow and Kendrick Smithyman — all of whom have had ample recognition from others. But major artists are capacious and inexhaustible, there is room for many people to have their say. I don’t pretend that what I’ve said about the people I’ve mentioned is definitive or the most important, but I hope it offers a fresh perspective on their work. Also, and almost by definition, major writers or artists are those that are endlessly informative about the culture we live in. Another strand in my work is making available materials that are otherwise unknown or hard to come by. This is why I have done such a lot of editing — Curnow’s essays, Smithyman’s, Spear’s and Brunton’s poems, Bensemann’s drawings and wood-engravings, and so on. Getting their stuff before the public so that others can access it. It’s a scholarly impulse, I guess, and one of the major motivations behind the Holloway Press.
Another strand, and one that has come to the fore in recent years, is collaboration. I enjoy getting close to a writer or artist and doing work that is ongoing over a period of years. This is especially the case with visual artists. Some I have worked with over and over on different projects are John Edgar (sculptor), Len Castle (potter), Ann Robinson (glass maker), John Pule (painter and poet), Tony Lane (painter), Peter Peryer (photographer), Kendrick Smithyman (poet), Alan Brunton (writer) etc. Often these people are or become my friends, and opportunities to write repeatedly about their work recur just because the personal relationships are ongoing. I’ve always been very interested in New Zealand, not I hope in a chauvinistic or xenophobic way, and I’m convinced that our artistic culture is richer than it is sometimes given credit for. I like to complicate the stories, to show that the history is richer and more complex than it has been presented; that’s always been a major motivator.
You've been busy for much of the last two years on a book about the life and the work of Leo Bensemann. What has made you so enthusiastic about a man who is probably still considered a relatively minor figure in New Zealand painting?
I feel almost as if I was fated to become Bensemann’s main expostitor and promoter, and indeed I’ve now been working at various projects concerning him for nearly 30 years. I started with a long essay I wrote in 1984, ‘Habitation of the Whole: The Takaka Rock Paintings of Leo Bensemann’, which I have recently put online under the Mudflat Webworks facility of the Holloway Press. That was the start. Since then I’ve edited two books of his graphic work for the Holloway Press: Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings (1997) and Engravings on Wood (2004). In 1999 I curated an exhibition Rita Angus & Leo Bensemann The Cambridge Terrace Years, originated by the Hocken Library, which toured to nine venues over the next three years. I’ve also given numerous talks and lectures, including two at the National Library, some published and some not. The climax of all this activity comes next February (2011) with the publication of my book Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (Auckland University Press), and an exhibition (co-curated with Noel Waite) at the Christchurch Art Gallery to be called Leo Bensemann: An Art Venture.
But why all this attention to Bensemann over such a long period? The answer to this contains several strands. The first is personal. Leo was born in Takaka in 1912; I was born there in 1942 (30 years later). He left at about the age of 10 to live in Nelson, as I did some 30 years later. He went to Nelson College; I went to Nelson College. He then moved to Christchurch, as I did 30 years later. I felt a kind of affinity with him arising from our (in some ways) similar backgrounds. I first met Leo in the mid 1960s when I bowled into the Caxton Press in Victoria Street, Christchurch, looking for books to add to my collection of New Zealand poetry. The burly bloke who took me out the back and showed me their archive was Leo. I remember buying off the shelf Baxter’s Beyond the Palisade (1944) and The Fallen House (1953) plus other books.
A decade or more later when I returned to Christchurch to teach at Canterbury University after spending eight years studying and teaching abroad (I did my PhD in Toronto and taught for five years at Carleton University in Ottawa), I began to encounter Bensemann's paintings, especially on the walls of older English Department colleagues such as Lawrence Baigent, H. Winston Rhodes and Archie Stockwell, who were his friends and contemporaries. I also saw his work in Group Shows (the Group ended in 1977) and in the solo shows he held at the Brooke Gifford Gallery in 1979 and 1981.(I didn’t see his last show which was held at the Galerie Legard, Wellington in 1983.)
From the 1981 show I bought a painting, Takaka Landscape, for $600. I remember thinking when I saw that show, ‘These paintings are of Old Master quality, and I can afford to buy one!’ (even if it took me several months to pay it off). It was of course no accident that I chose a Takaka painting. I became so fascinated with this painting (it is reproduced in colour with the article mentioned above), that I decided I wanted to write about it and him, and so began the research that led to ‘Habitation of the Whole’. It was the first piece of art criticism I ever wrote and I still think it is one of the best things I’ve done. While I was working on it I contacted Leo and he agreed to talk to me. I visited his house on Huntsbury Hill in February 1984 and spent an afternoon in conversation with him. Fortunately I kept notes which I have drawn on as recently as this year while I was writing my book. We got on well. He was already suffering from the prostate cancer that eventually killed him (aged 73) a couple of years later (January 1986). Among the things we talked about were Japanese woodcuts (he reverently showed me books of Hiroshige and Hokusai he’d loved for 50 years), Rita Angus (‘I could never paint like her and she could never draw like me’), the Takaka landscape, especially the marble and limestone outcrops on Takaka Hill which he painted repeatedly, and many other things. I remember a tendency for him to sigh heavily, as if he knew his end was coming and our talk had reminded him of all the things in life he had loved. I also suspect that he was frustrated not to have painted more than he did, being constrained by a demanding full-time job at the Caxton Press (1938-1978).
Eventually my article was published in the second issue of the fine magazine Untold, edited by my friends Simon Garrett and John Newton; fortunately Leo got to read it, and even more fortunately he liked it. His great friend Lawrence Baigent wrote to one of Leo’s daughters: ‘He is still virtually confined to bed as no doubt you know. It was good, though, when I last went up to Huntsbury to find him surrounded by copies of Untold and greatly cheered by Peter Simpson’s excellent study of his work….I have never known your father so pleased by and so uncritical of anything that has been written about him.’ I hope you will forgive the immodesty of my quoting this. Leo also wrote me a wonderful letter in his exquisite italic script, thanking me for the article. Bensemann also appealed to me as a subject because of the gross lack of recognition he received; never mentioned in the standard texts; absent from some of the country’s major public collections, including the Auckland and Dunedin Public Art Galleries; a neglect that has lasted until now. Convinced as I was (and am) that he is a major talent, I took on as a kind of mission the task of getting him some just recognition. The job is not over yet, but I hope the coming book and exhibition will make a difference in this regard.
Then (to raise another point) Bensemann appealed as a subject because, almost uniquely for his generation, he straddled the worlds of art and literature. For 40 years he worked at the Caxton Press, from 1938-78, during the years when it published most of New Zealand’s best writers—Glover, Curnow, Bethell, Fairburn, Mason, Sargeson, Holcroft, Beaglehole, Dowling, Brasch, Baxter, Smithyman, Frame, Dallas, Duggan, Oliver, Challis, Bland—the list goes on and on. He made a major contribution to New Zealand design with the books he worked on for Caxton, not to mention his illustrations, and his important behind-the-scenes roles in Landfall, Book, Ascent and so on. Through The Group which was the leading outlet for visual artists until dealer galleries got going in the 1960s, and of which he was an active member from 1938 to 1977, he linked the art world with the literary world with the wonderful catalogues he designed for The Group each year and printed at Caxton. (You can see these on-line under the Heritage section of the Christchurch City Libraries website.) With my double interest in literature and the visual arts he was a perfect subject for me, especially since no-one else seemed interested in taking it on. I deal with all this extensively in my book.
A final point. Bensemann doesn’t conform to the grand narrative of New Zealand art history, one of the reasons for his neglect. When landscape ruled he avoided it completely, when landscape went out of fashion, he took it up. He challenges all the stereotypes of art history. This is a major theme of my book.
You have written very informatively about Kendrick Smithyman's poetry, and you also helped edit his Selected and Collected Poems. Has the fact that you enjoyed a close friendship with Kendrick helped or hindered your engagement with his poems? The arrival of Smithyman's Selected Poems in 1989 signalled something of a turning point in his reputation: the book received a series of enthusiastic reviews and seemed to stimulate a couple of important critical studies of his work. Suddenly the man who had often been damned for the obscurity of his work was being treated like an elder statesman of New Zealand poetry. Could you tell us a little about the process of putting the Selected Poems together?
If you don’t mind, I’ll run these two questions together. In a sense my closest engagement with Kendrick’s poetry was before I knew him and after he was dead, so the short answer to your question is that, no, I have not been hindered by my friendship with him. Getting to know him personally certainly helped in the long project of publishing his Collected Poems online.
I had read Kendrick’s work since the early 1960s but the book that really sparked my interest was Stories About Wooden Keyboards, which came out in 1985. I reviewed it for The Listener, and in the course of my review I commented that it was about time a good selection of his work was published since much of it was out of print. He saw the comment and said (I think through Elizabeth Caffin who was his editor at AUP) ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’ So I took it on. At that stage I had only met Kendrick once. In those days I was living in Christchurch, and he didn’t often come south, or I north. However, I did meet him on one occasion at the University Staff Club and I recall being very surprised, first at his physical appearance — a shortish somewhat roly-poly gentleman with a large head and very expressive eyes — and second at his manner — friendly, loquacious, amusing, full of wonderful stories. I had expected, I suspect because of the rather stern photograph in A Way of Saying (his 1965 critical book), that he would be formidable and rather unapproachable. I also got to know him further when we jointly judged the Book Awards for poetry in 1977. We gave the prize jointly to Wedde’s Spells for Coming Out and Manhire’s How to Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnic. At Elizabeth Caffin’s invitation I started reading towards a Selected Poems when I found that Kendrick himself had put together such a collection, in his usual way revising many of the earlier poems as he went. He sent me this typescript and it amounted from memory to about 160 poems, considerably longer than the book that AUP wanted to publish. The Selected Poems that eventually came out in 1989 was 100 poems. However, I immediately decided that I would make my selection from his selection, that is, I selected 100 poems from the 160 or so in his much larger selection. I suppose this approach made my job easier but that was not my main reason for adopting it. Rather, I felt that Kendrick’s selection from his own work had an authority that ought to be preserved. It meant that some of my favourites had to be left out (since he hadn’t included them in his selection) but that seemed a small price to pay for the advantages of remaining inside his own selection from his work. Beyond that, I simply chose the poems I liked best, while attempting to give a broad spread of his work across time, subject matter and theme, and wrote an essay to introduce the book. He was the easiest person to work with and never queried any of my choices or statements. He always ragged me, though, about an unfortunate misprint in my introduction where Te Kopuru, his birthplace, is described as a ‘mining town’ instead of a ‘milling town’. He never let me forget that error. In 1992 I moved to Auckland and got to know Kendrick much better as a person than I had before. He had retired from the university by then so I did not see him frequently but we did socialise from time to time. He would occasionally ring me up out of the blue and launch into some anecdote. One of them, I recall, was about the word ‘syzygy’, which delighted him (he wrote a two line poem about it). I also won’t forget in a hurry the phone call when he rang to tell me he was dying. I know that many of his friends got a similar call.
Two pleasurable events which occurred before his death in 1995 were a visit he made to an Honours class I was teaching at which he read and talked about ‘Tomarata’, one of my favourites among his poems, and the making of the video Closing the Chocolate Factory just a few weeks before he died. When he came to my MA class to talk about ‘Tomarata’ he brought with him some items which are mentioned in the poem, including some moa crop stones (as mentioned in part 6 of the poem) and some specimens of the shell Struthiolaris (as mentioned in part 7). Alan Loney was visiting the class that day, and of course Alan and I had started up the Holloway Press at the Tamaki campus where I was mostly teaching (I came in to the city campus to teach my honours course). Alan and I immediately agreed to make a small book of ‘Tomarata’, utilising early drafts which Kendrick dug out for us. We also had plans to utilise the shells and stones, but never found a satisfactory way of incorporating them into the book.
Preparing Tomorata was the first time that I became conscious of Kendrick’s extraordinary archive of all the different versions that a poem passed through on the way to and even after publication (now all deposited in the University of Auckland library). Before Tomorata was published, unfortunately, Kendrick died, and what was intended as a book to honour him became a memorial volume instead. When we launched the book in 1996 I organised a reading at which a number of Kendrick’s friends and colleagues were invited to read a poem of his. I dug out an old file indicating who the readers were and which of Kendrick’s poems they chose. The list goes: Elizabeth Caffin: ‘Night Riding’ from Atua Wera , Allen Curnow: ‘Getting to Sleep’, Marilyn Duckworth: ‘A Line of Song, Pately Moor’, Murray Edmond: ‘Coming Home’, Riemke Ensing: ‘Schooling’, Mac Jackson: ‘Waitomo’, Michael King: ‘Peehi/Best’, Dennis McEldowney: ‘Saturday July Second 3’, Peter Simpson: from ‘Tomarata’, Elizabeth Smither: ‘A Birthday’, C.K. Stead, ‘About Verbs’ and Terry Sturm: ‘Demolition: Building the University’. It’s chastening to realise when I look at this list that four of the people on it are dead: Curnow, King, McEldowney and Sturm.
I’m not sure now who it was who suggested making a video of Kendrick reading—this was after it was known that he did not have long to live. The video was directed by Margaret Henley of the FTVMS Department at the university. It was agreed that Mac Jackson and I would make a selection of poems for Kendrick to read. He always seemed to prefer to have other people make these decisions for him than to do so himself. During the filming I sat opposite him at a table and asked some leading questions to get him going and to provide continuity. He read magnificently, and his spontaneous introductions to each poem were often almost as good as the poems themselves and sometimes hardly distinguishable from them. The poem ‘Closing the Chocolate Factory’ which he read last and which is used as title of the film he dedicated to his wife Margaret. It is a marvellous record, and irreplaceable, given that he died within a few weeks of the filming. Some excerpts from the video are on the nzepc website , but unfortunately without the anecdotal introductions.
Some time after Kendrick died, at the suggestion of Margaret Edgcumbe, his widow, and Elizabeth Caffin, his publisher, I was invited to visit his house to look through his papers and to advise on what posthumous publications might be possible. It was then that I made the discovery of just how hugely productive Kendrick had been as a writer, and how carefully he had preserved and ordered his papers. I already knew about Atua Wera, the epic poem about Papahurihia he had worked on for nearly twenty years, because he had let me read it before he died. It was all ready to go and was the first of his posthumous publications to appear. But there were three other complete books, Imperial Vistas Family Fictions, which AUP has since published, and Festives People Places Pictures Book, about a trip to Canada which has still not been published (except in the on-line Collected Poems, about which more later) and Journal 69, the complete text of the poems written during his only extensive overseas trip in 1969. Many of the poems in Journal 69 had been published in earlier books such as Earthquake Weather, The Seal in the Dolphin Pool, and Dwarf with a Billiard Cue but many others were unpublished and the whole sequence was re-organised in chronological order. Again, this collection has only been published in the on-line Collected Poems.
The next discovery was a vast Collected Poems held in about a dozen manila folders, organised chronologically. It became evident that Kendrick had been putting this together for years, probably since his retirement from the university in about 1987, and that it had involved sifting through everything he had ever written published and unpublished, thoroughly revising everything, especially from earlier years, and deciding what to keep and what to leave out. So vast was this collection that it soon became obvious that no publisher in New Zealand could consider bringing it out. It was more than twice as long as Baxter’s Collected Poems, for instance, and contained more than 1500 poems. To cut a long story short, it was eventually decided that through the Holloway Press we would publish the whole collection on line, and Mudflat Webworks was created, by the irreplacable university web-master Brian Flaherty, as the vehicle for it. Margaret Edgcumbe and I spent several years transcribing all the poems and writing a note for each one. It eventually went on line in 2004.
You wrote an affecting essay about the literary and romantic relationship between Kendrick and Mary Stanley for Between the Lives, the collection of studies of New Zealand artists and their partners published by Auckland University Press in 2005. One reviewer wrote that the Smithyman-Stanley relationship was the most tragic of all the stories in that book. Do you agree with this assessment?
Yes, there were tragic elements in the situation, though whether or not it was the most tragic, I don’t know. A relationship which began with great passion and tenderness on both sides, as reflected in Kendrick’s first two books, Seven Sonnets (1946) and The Blind Mountain (1950), and from Mary’s perspective in many of the poems in her only book Starveling Year, eventually became a notoriously fractious and unhappy marriage. There were reasons for this that were outside the control of either of them. Before Kendrick even met Mary she had suffered a grievous loss. Her husband Brian whom she married only days or weeks before he went overseas to fight in World War II, was shot by a sniper in Italy and killed. When Kendrick met her, and immediately fell head over heels in love with her, she was a grieving widow, and it is hardly surprising that the ‘weeping woman’ figures so often in his verse at that time. I get the impression that Kendrick pursued her relentlessly and eventually she succumbed, no doubt seeking oblivion in the arms of another, and also desperate to have children because she blamed herself for not getting pregnant to Brian before he went overseas. Kendrick and Mary had some years of great happiness especially after the first of their children was born, but before long the first signs of Mary’s debilitating illness began to show – it was rheumatoid arthritis, I believe – and this began to put tremendous pressure on their relationship. Mary experienced remission when she was pregnant, and two more children (both boys) quickly followed the first, but unfortunately her illness then got progressively worse. I remember Kendrick telling me that the reason they moved to Herald Island in the upper Waitemata Harbour, where he was the sole teacher at the school, was that it was the school closest to Auckland which qualified for country service (which teachers were required to do at that time), and the reason they needed to be close to Auckland was because of Mary’s health. Kendrick used to come home from school at lunch time to turn Mary in her bed, so ill was she when the condition was at its worst. It is hardly surprising that as a poet she wrote less and less – she was a seriously unwell woman with three children and a husband to look after – while for Kendrick of course the flow of poems never stopped. That can’t have made their relations any easier.
A feminist take on their marriage is that Kendrick, so to speak, squeezed the poetry out of Mary by his chauvinism and that this was exacerbated by the patriarchal attitudes of the culture as a whole. There was a grain of truth in this. Kendrick probably was a bit of a chauvinist like many men of his era, but probably no worse (if as bad) as, say, Fairburn, Glover, Baxter, McCahon et al. Also it is true that Mary met with some discouragement from the literary culture. Famously, she never appeared in Landfall (she was rejected once and never submitted poems again), though Charles Brasch certainly wasn’t hostile to other women poets such as Ruth Dallas, Janet Frame and (later) Fleur Adcock. And he did commission a favourable review of Starveling Year. There is a story I cannot verify that when one well known anthologist was criticised for excluding her, he is supposed to have said, ‘Why should she worry, her husband’s in the book’, or words to that effect. So there was a bias in the culture against women artists, and during the rein of Modernism ‘domestic’ poetry (at which she excelled) was down graded and belittled. For the most part, Kendrick was strongly supportive of Mary’s writing and did much to encourage her. This is what he claimed and I believe him. It was illness and her depressive tendencies, plus her grief at the loss she had suffered which came back to haunt her (if the poems are to be believed) which largely explains why the poems dried up. Yes, in a way it was a tragedy: for her, for him, for them both.
You wrote an introduction to Slow Passes, a substantial collection of Alan Brunton's poetry published by Auckland University Press back in the mid-80s. Your introduction helped to create interest in Brunton, who had enjoyed a reputation as a bit of a wildman, and whose poems had sometimes been dismissed as impenetrably subjective. What drew you to Brunton's poems? Do you think they hold up today, decades after the 1960s counterculture which initiated his career?
I first encountered Brunton’s poems in Arthur Baysting’s anthology The Young New Zealand Poets which came out in 1972 when I was overseas and introduced a host of new poets including Hunt, Manhire, Wedde, Loney, Haley, Mitchell, Edmond and others. Back home again, I reviewed a couple of Brunton’s early books, Black & White Anthology and Oh Ravachol for Robin Dudding’s Islands, but what really got me interested was the theatre/cabaret group Red Mole of which Brunton and his wife Sally Rodwell (both now dead, sadly) were the main drivers.
In 1979 I was asked to prepare a programme of public lectures/performances at the University of Canterbury where I was working at the time. It had the general title The Invention of New Zealand. Among the people I wanted to involve was Ian Wedde; I visited Ian in Wellington on one occasion to make arrangements for his visit to Christchurch. I asked him if he could recommend any lively current theatre group to include in the series, and he said, ‘Have you seen Red Mole, they’re performing in Wellington tonight?’ So I raced into town and caught a performance of Goin’ to Djibuti which absolutely knocked my socks off. I’d never seen any theatre like it—trenchant, funny, poetic, highly imaginative. Brunton wrote all of the Red Mole scripts. I met Alan and Sally back stage that night and asked them if they’d be interested in bringing the show to Christchurch. They were keen and eventually performed two shows on successive nights, Goin to Djibouti and Crazy in the Streets. I think it was the first time they’d performed in the South Island. Martin Edmond and Jan Preston (musician) were also part of the group at that time. From then on I became firm friends with Alan and Sally and always got together with them when they brought shows to Christchurch, including I’ll Never Dance Down Bugis Street Again, their show about Terry Clark and Mr Asia which I saw in of all places a suburban Christchurch pub, the Heathcote Arms. By then they were living in America apart from a brief return to tour that show. I next caught up with them in New York. They were living in a grungy area on the Lower East Side and I spent a memorable evening with Alan, during which he took me for a walk through the East Village and showed me all his favourite book shops. The climax of the evening came when Sally arrived home breathless (she had biked from her job in a bar on 42nd Street!) to blurt that a drive-by shooting had taken place literally right outside their apartment. Alan and I had heard noises but thought it was fire crackers or an exhaust. When I caught a taxi later, I had to step over the plastic ribbon the police had put up to mark the site of the slaying. Alan wrote a memorable poem about that incident called ‘Their Diet Consists of Carrion’ in which I make a brief (if somewhat exaggerated) appearance:
Little Paco was executed
by the Leadership for his peculations,
struck down at my front door.
I was entertaining a distinguished visitor
From the Antipodes,
A detective rang the bell,
Flipped his wallet: ‘Homicide!’
Had information Paco had run messages for me.
I hemmed and hawed, denied it more than once,
Returned to the professor through hectares of murk.
Paco’s dark essence was indelible on the pavement.
Fate moves in mysterious ways, sometimes
It uses a blunt instrument. Paco died in Cabrini Hospital unattended.
It was proof the Vultures had entered the village.
The Commissioner ordered a cordon sanitaire around us,
‘Let dog eat dog,’ were his very words.
I later printed the poem plus several others by Alan in a journal called Span which I edited for a few years for the Commonwealth Literature Association (among other things I was pleased to publish in Span were the first sections ever published from Smithyman’s Atua Wera, and also the sequence called Elders later included in Are you going to the pictures? and Selected Poems). Alan sent me from New York two volumes of poems he had published in limited editions, And She Said (1984) and New Order (1986), and these eventually became the core of Slow Passes, published by AUP in 1991. Essentially Slow Passes collected the poems Alan wrote while he was out of New Zealand between 1978-1988. I have always thought Alan was greatly underestimated as a poet. In some ways I see him as New Zealand’s version of Ezra Pound, a wild man certainly but a man of immense knowledge and more widely read in poetry than anyone I have ever met apart from Smithyman. I don’t think we’ve even started to come to terms with the scale of Brunton’s achievement, though if the work Michele Leggott is doing on a Collected Poems ever comes to light that process will get under way. I’m a great admirer of some of his later sequences such as Day for a Daughter and Fq. His work, like Smithyman’s, is a mountain largely unclimbed.
One final Brunton story. When I was MP for Lyttelton from 1987-90, I used occasionally to escape from the constraints of Parliament Buildings to visit Alan and Sally in Newtown and later in Island Bay. You can’t imagine a better antidote to the poisons of parliament. This led to my arranging for Red Mole to put on a performance of Comrade Savage, their play about Michael Joseph Savage, in the grand Legislative Council Chamber at Parliament. They were thrilled to stage this subversive play in the very bowels of the beast. I’ve recently learned that Bill Direen worked on the songs for that show. David Lange paid them a visit back-stage, I recall, and Roger Douglas put his nose in the air as he walked past. I miss Alan and Sally a lot. They were among the most stimulating friends I ever had. Unusually for a Kiwi arts scholar, you have at various times in your life been heavily involved in politics. In fact, you were Labour MP for Lyttleton between 1987 and 1990, when the party was falling apart due to the effects of the neo-liberal policies associated with the likes of Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble. What attracted you to full-time politics at such a difficult moment? Did you see yourself as aligned to one or another of the factions that were fighting each other in the party? And do you see a connection between your scholarship and your political career?
My political career, such as it was, is best put down as what Ronald Hugh Morrieson called “an episode” in a life otherwise devoted to teaching, scholarship and writing. Like many others of my generation (I was born in 1942), I was politicised by the Vietnam war, having been relatively indifferent to politics before then. Not that you would describe me as an activist but I did go on marches against the war. The thing which made me get more actively involved was the phenomenon of Robert Muldoon. I felt a powerful sense of personal resentment about what he was doing to my country. When I came back to New Zealand after nearly a decade away Muldoon had just become prime minister and it wasn’t long before he started showing his true colours—dawn raids on Pacific Island overstayers, bulling of journalists, and especially (the trigger for me) the Colin Moyle affair. This is now largely forgotten but Moyle, a popular Labour ex-minister, who was widely expected to replace Wallace Rowling as leader of Labour after Muldoon won the 1978 election (Rowling, a decent man, was correctly perceived as no political match for Muldoon), was destroyed by Muldoon’s accusations in parliament that he had been picked up by the cops for homosexual activities. A rigged enquiry caught Moyle out in telling contradictory versions of his story (all told under vastly different circumstances) and he was forced to resign (he was re-elected later though never became a force again). It’s too long a story to go into in detail, but I became convinced that Moyle had been set up and destroyed because he was perceived as a future leader. I also subscribed in those days to a somewhat paranoid (and probably mistaken) belief that Norman Kirk has been assassinated. This, I felt at the time, was Fascism showing its ugly face and when you perceive such a thing you have a duty to try and stop it. The only feasible reaction, as I saw it, was to join the Labour party and to work for the defeat of the Muldoon government. I joined in the electorate where I was living, namely Lyttelton, which also covered a good deal of South East Christchurch (I actually lived in Opawa). The Labour party had just elected a bright young candidate, Ann Hercus, to stand for Lyttelton in the 1978 election. She and her husband John, who was the head of the Christchurch Polytechnic, made quite a formidable political team and quickly built up the party in the electorate which was pretty moribund after the 1975 defeat. I was asked to chair a new branch and soon became part of a hard-working and super-keen bunch of activists who helped win the seat back for Labour in 1978 and hold on to it in 1981 and 1984, when Labour finally became government (after nine years of Muldoon’s ‘National Socialism’). This involved ten years of grassroots political activism — fund raising, door knocking, public meetings, writing remits for party conferences and the like. I was a foot-soldier like hundreds of others and had no wider ambitions. Hercus went straight into the Lange cabinet in 1984 and was perceived as an effective minister and even as a potential leader. She was given a load of demanding portfolios, including police and social welfare (partly to keep her quiet, we suspected), but a few months before the 1987 election to universal surprise she suddenly resigned — a case of political burn-out most likely — and we (I was her electorate chairman at the time and chair of her campaign committee) were without a candidate. I fell prey to temptation and decided to stand for nomination. I was selected from about 18 candidates (I can’t remember how many exactly) and three months later was in parliament. Labour had won in a landslide. From recollection my majority was about 5,000.
In politics timing is everything, and my timing was appalling. Hercus knew when to get out, and I inherited something of a poisoned chalice, because within a few months of the election the 1987 crash came, one of the upshots of which was that David Lange and Roger Douglas fell out disastrously, the caucus was divided down the middle between Douglas-ites and Lange-ites, and the whole government went into a tail spin from which it never recovered. Most of the first term MPs like myself were left wingers put into parliament by the Trade Unions who had been wrong-footed by Douglas, Prebble, Moore et al but who began to fight back by electing union-friendly people, such as Sonja Davies and Graham Kelly. I wasn’t part of that group. I belonged to the middle-class educated liberal wing of the party of whom the Deputy PM Geoffrey Palmer (a good friend of mine since school days as it happens) was the leader. He of course took over briefly when Lange resigned but was white-anted by the scheming Mike Moore until Palmer, too, resigned and Moore became PM for a few months in a doomed attempt to hold on to government or at least check the extent of the defeat. In the caucus I soon sided with the left wing faction trying to stop the juggernaut of Rogernomics, totally without success. We failed to halt the sale of a single state asset and never won a single vote in caucus. Being in parliament in that period was like being in the back of a bus that was careering down a mountain road with nobody in control — exhilarating but scary. I felt as if I had completely lost control of my own life.
The 1990 election was a landslide against Labour and I was voted out; the majority against me was the smallest in the country, about 50 votes. Some day I will write the full story of those years, but not here and now. After three exciting if somewhat bewildering years I was out of a job; also, the waters had closed over behind me at Canterbury (you have to resign from university to enter parliament). The main decision facing me was whether to try to get back into parliament in 1993 or to try to resume my academic career. An opening at Auckland University offered a way out and so I didn’t put my name forward for nomination as Labour candidate even though I still had the support of the party organisation locally. I had a few anxious months waiting to hear if I got the Auckland job (I was told there were 300 applicants), but in the end I was successful and late in 1992 moved to Auckland where I’ve lived ever since. Since moving to Auckland I have not been active in politics. I’ve helped Labour on election day a few times but the fire was extinguished and I convinced myself that if I was going to make any sort of contribution to the wider society it would be as a teacher and writer, not as a politician. You ask if there is any connection in my case between politics and scholarship. There is at least a loose connection. I think of myself as something of a patriot (old fashioned word). I’ve always cared about this country and came to feel that the excesses of the Muldoon era were exacerbated by insufficient self-knowledge on the part of society at large. Because we didn’t understand ourselves sufficiently as a society this left us open to the sort of appeal to our worst selves that Muldoon represented. I suppose my scholarship and writing is at some level dedicated to increasing knowledge of and understanding of ourselves. As far as literature and art are concerned that means continually re-investigating the past, thickening and subtilising if possible the narratives that we tell ourselves about ourselves, if that doesn’t sound too pompous an ambition. I suppose another connection between my politics and my writing is that I don’t much believe in the value of esoteric criticism. I try to write for the intelligent general public and have always aimed at being lucid without over-simplifying the issues. Even complex and difficult art and writing can be made accessible to a wide readership so long as you treat your audience with respect and don’t write down to them. I guess there is a ghost of a socialist lurking there somewhere.
You are currently employed as the director of the Holloway Press, which is based in the university of Auckland's English Department. How do you see Holloway's role in New Zealand culture, and how do you see the future of literary publishing in this country in general? Do you agree with the pessimists who predict the imminent demise of the literary lists of our larger presses, as book sales decline, bulk orders from big bookshops evaporate, and the pressure to make a buck increases?
The Holloway Press was started by Alan Loney and me when I first came to Auckland in 1993. Alan had been Literary Fellow in Auckland for a year and was looking for a way of starting a press that had some institutional backing (rather than being financed entirely by himself as had been the case with Hawk Press and Black Light Press both of which eventually folded because of financial pressure). And so it came to pass. I persuaded the University to take it on and we were given space in the library at Tamaki to house the equipment. We called it Holloway Press after Ron Holloway, a veteran Auckland printer who had donated some equipment and his archive to the University. Our first book was a poem by Allen Curnow, Looking Westward, Late Afternoon, Low Water published in 1994 and in the next few years while Alan was the printer did books by Robin Hyde, Leo Bensemann, Kendrick Smithyman, Ibykus (Greek poet, translated by Ted Jenner), Helen Shaw, Wystan Curnow and Robert Creeley. In 1997 or '98 Alan left for Australia, and the Press stalled for a year or two while I worked out what to do next. It soon became apparent that the university was not going to give another printer a salary as Alan had got (working up from 25% to fulltime). Eventually some grants from the Vice Chancellor John Hood enabled me to start producing books again, mostly using Tara McLeod as printer. And that’s how things have proceeded ever since. I became the publisher, choosing what to publish and occasionally commissioning writers and artists to come up with a collaborative work. Since 2001 I have produced 15 books, some of them quite ambitious (and expensive!) such as Leo Bensemann’s Engravings on Wood, Max Gimblett’s Searchings (with Alan Loney), Alan Loney’s Fishwork (with Max Gimblett), Michele Leggott’s and Gretchen Abrecht’s Journey to Portugal, Murray Edmond’s The Fruits Of with Joanna Forsberg, and two books by Len Lye (edited by Roger Horrocks), Happy Moments and Body English. We’ve also done books by McCahon, Smithyman, R.A.K. Mason, Maurice Duggan and Charles Spear. The latest publication, Dear Charles, Dear Janet records the correspondence and friendship of Charles Brasch and Janet Frame. Coming up is a collection of poems and drawings by the experimental writer Lisa Samuels.
I retired from my academic position in the English department in 2008 and was given a small contract by the university to keep the Holloway Press going. Since then I have been able to publish more often than before — three books last year, three books this year, three-four books next year. My concept of the Holloway Press is to make books which would otherwise not be published because the material is not suitable for commercial publication, for whatever reason. The technology we use is antiquated and relatively expensive because of the cost of labour and materials.
My attitude is if you’re going to go to all this trouble and expense to make books then the material had better be worth reading. I have no truck with the hobbyist attitude to letterpress printing, that it’s all about the pleasure of printing and that it doesn’t much matter what you are printing. All our material is previously unpublished and has unusual literary, artistic and/or historical interest. I guess there are two main kinds of books we do — material out of the archive by well established writers and artists of proven importance to the culture — hence titles by Mason, Curnow, Hyde, McCahon, Lye, Smithyman, Bensemann, Frame, et al. Much of this material comes out of my own research and is often the by-product of other projects I am working on — Smithyman, Bensemann, McCahon etc. The other kind of book is new writing by contemporaries, often working in collaboration with visual artists, such as Leggott/Albrecht, Loney/Gimblett, Edmond/Forsberg and so on. Many of these are associated with the University of Auckland. Since it is a university supported press, I have felt some obligation to publish the creative and scholarly work of my colleagues. I guess I have moulded the Holloway list to accommodate my own interests in the history of New Zealand art and literature, the interface between text and image, and the history of printing and small press publishing in New Zealand: the Lowry, Holloway, Glover, Bensemann, Gormack, Loney tradition which we consciously reference.
The Holloway Press is such a special case that it does not really intersect with mainstream publishing, and I don’t really have deeply considered opinions about the future of such publishing. My mantra is Marshall McLuhan’s statement that when technology becomes obsolete for commerce it becomes available for art, and this may well apply to current means of book production as well as to already obsolete technologies like letterpress printing. I can’t imagine books will ever go out of fashion because it is so much more pleasurable to read a physical book than it is to read material on a screen. Imagine reading Anna Karenina or The Cantos on a screen. Mind you the e-book technology is catching up with this issue and may well solve it to everyone’s satisfaction, and if that happens the book may well be under threat.