Thursday, September 30, 2010

'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.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bill Daly: a super bigot for the super city?

Many former politicians have thrown their hats back into the ring by entering Auckland's 'super city' elections. On the North Shore, former Alliance MP Grant Gillon is after a council seat; in the south the former National MP Arthur Anae is hoping for a seat on the local health board; and Brian Neeson, who was the right-wing National member for Waitakere back in the '90s, is standing for no less than five positions in various parts of Auckland.

Out in West Auckland, a veteran of a somewhat more obscure strand of New Zealand politics is hoping to use the super city elections to revive his career. Bill Daly, who is standing for the council in the ward of Waitakere, was the leader of the explicitly anti-semitic and racist organisation the New Zealand League of Rights from the 1980s, when it boasted hundreds of members and regularly received coverage in the mainstream media, until 2004, when it was quietly wound up.

The group Daly led was an offshoot of the Australian League of Rights, which was founded in 1946 by Eric Butler, a fundamentalist Christian and admirer of the Social Credit economic theories of CH Douglas. Butler, who had been placed under surveillance during World War Two because of his support for Hitler, believed that the world economy was controlled by Jews and communists who were determined to destroy traditional Christian morality, drive farmers and small businesses to the wall, and dilute the purity of the white race by promoting immigration and inter-ethnic marriage. Douglas' kooky economic theory, which seemed to show that sinister cabals of bankers could use interest charges to impoverish the rest of society, was used by Butler and his co-thinkers to explain how the Jew-communists carried out their conspiracy.

As the leader of the League of the Rights, the editor of its journal On Target, and the proprietor of its bookshop, Daly was Butler's key lieutenant in this country during the 1980s and '90s. He wrote many pieces for On Target, often spoke on behalf of his organisation to the media, and frequently crossed the Tasman to appear at events organised by the Australian League.

Two of Daly's main causes during the heyday of the League of Rights were the defence of apartheid South Africa and the denial of the Holocaust. The League argued that the apartheid system was a just solution to South Africa's social problems, and consequently opposed any attempt to use sporting or economic sanctions to isolate the Pretoria government.

Daly attempted to use On Target and the League of Rights bookshop to spread the argument that Hitler's regime had been innocent of the deaths of large numbers of Jews. His efforts did not go unnoticed: in January 1986, the journal of the Australian League of Rights reported that:

Across the Tasman Mr. Bill Daly, National Director of the New Zealand League of Rights, is now being pressured to stop selling certain books, one of these being "The Hoax of the Twentieth Century", also banned in Canada. Mr. Daly is threatened with the secret courts, which operate under the guise of Human "Rights" Commissions. Australians should take note, and act, before they also feel the lash of the totalitarians.

One of the best-known works of Holocaust denial, Arthur Butz's The Hoax of the Twentieth Century argues that death camps like Auschwitz and Belsen were actually hospitals and shelters for displaced people, and that claims of mass killings of Jews were invented by Zionists because they offered an excuse for the founding of the state of Israel after World War Two.

In 1993 Daly launched an attempt to bring David Irving, the world's most famous Holocaust denier, to New Zealand to deliver a series of lectures. Daly's invitation to Irving created intense publicity after Jewish groups denounced Irving and asked the government to deny the pseudo-historian permission to enter New Zealand. Irving eventually cancelled plans for a visit, but not before he had appeared on New Zealand television and radio to make explicit his admiration for Hitler and his denial of the Holocaust. In the September 1993 issue of its journal, the Australian League of Rights complained that the criticisms of David Irving were part of 'an international conspiracy' run by 'those with a vested interest' in 'the Holocaust legend'. Daly and the League were unafraid to offer Biblical justifications for their opposition to race-mixing, Jewish bankers, and other symptoms of the decline of Western civilisation. In his texts and his speeches, Daly often presented himself as an instrument of God's will, and just as often accused his enemies of Satanic inspiration. In a 1991 letter to the journal of the Australian League of Rights, Daly made his theology explicit:

The disorder and utter nonsense now seen everywhere is merely proof that without reference to a higher authority human beings simply become mad. Much of the madness today can only be described as diabolical. How else do we explain the behaviour of someone who will protest against the killing of whales, seals, or some other virtually unknown species of animal or insect, but condones or even advocates the legal execution of some of next year's one-year-old children? How do we explain priests and bishops supporting a conference to discuss ways of making practising homosexuals feel part of the 'Church'? A priest or minister of the 'old school' would have had no hesitation in replying that these human and social defects are a result of what was called original sin, and that without the constant Grace of God, and of minds directed upwards, then man automatically 'falls'.

When it is set beside the articles and speeches which record his political past, the statement Bill Daly has produced to promote his candidacy in the super city elections seems relatively unremarkable. In his text, which is included in the candidate information brochure which has been delivered along with voting papers to homes across Waitakere, Daly criticises 'reforms to councils without public input' and calls for 'binding referenda' on important issues. He says that New Zealand should 'reestablish a sound manufacturing base' and 'work towards energy independence'. The only hint of his former views comes from his statement that he would like to 'correct faults in the financial system so that everyone can have prosperity and security'. As I noted in a post a couple of years ago, this sort of language is often used by Social Crediters who believe that a sinister cabal of bankers controls the world economy, enriching themselves and preventing general prosperity by charging interest on loans. But Social Credit is not a necessarily anti-semitic ideology, even if many of its adherants, from Douglas and Butler on, have been anti-semites. It would seem unfair to condemn Daly, then, merely on the basis of the coded support for Social Credit economics in his election statement.
Is it possible, given his innocuous election statement and the decision to fold up the New Zealand League of Rights back in 2004, that Bill Daly has abandoned the bigoted views which once made him a target of criticism for anti-apartheid activists, Human Rights Commissioners, and Jewish community groups? There are certainly cases of high-profile members of the racist right turning their backs on their old beliefs. Ingo Hesselbach, for instance, is a former leader of Germany's neo-Nazi movement who converted to anti-racism, wrote a fine, apologetic memoir called Fuhrer Ex, and established a group called Germany EXIT, which helps other contrite fascists to leave behind their old lifestyles and contacts.

Sadly, a number of recently-published texts by Bill Daly suggest that he has not renounced his old beliefs. Although he wound up the New Zealand League of Rights, he continues to publish material in the journal of the Australian organisation, and he also seems to have begun writing for local blogs in an effort to advance his racist viewpoints.

A rambling article by Daly called 'Helen Clark's Mission and the Great Liberal Death Wish' appeared on a website called Guerrilla News a few months ago. Daly's piece claims that Helen Clark was part of a conspiracy to 'globalise' New Zealand by filling it with non-whites, gays, and other degenerates, and obscuring its white and Christian heritage:

the liberal mind seeks to undermine national and cultural traditions, especially any Western Christian influences; then denies any unique differences between individuals, families, communities, nations and races; this in turn leading to the faulty notions of equality...Clark said only a few weeks ago that the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert is 56 percent white, with various percentages after that of Maori, Pacific Islander, Asian and others. Clark said that this is fine, if this is what the future of New Zealand is to be that's great, she said...

By the time the rest of New Zealand is reduced to 56 percent European, Mt Albert is more likely to resemble something akin to Haiti. Crime is higher in all those parts of Auckland where there are the greatest mixture of races. There is more rubbish lying about. There are more vicious dogs. There are more domestic problems and violence...Auckland is on its way to becoming a disparate appendage of New Zealand, an untidy, congested place made up of various enclaves, the sort of place other New Zealanders should visit to learn how not to do things. Already it is a political and economic drain on the rest of New Zealand. Auckland is actually proof that forced multi-racialism does not work, unless the desired outcome is deliberately intended to be less social harmony.

Daly's article for Guerilla News recycles many of the themes of his texts and speeches from the 1980s and '90s. Daly identifies all that is good in our society with 'Western Christian influences', criticises human rights and racial equality as 'faulty notions', and claims that the mixing of the races is having disastrous consequences in Mt Albert and in other parts of Auckland. If races keep mixing, and the white proportion of the population declines, then we will soon be living in a society as poor and desperate as Haiti. We can only avoid this dire future if Auckland's races are separated, and then kept separate.

Daly's argument about the apocalyptic effects of race-mixing is as bankrupt now as it was in the '80s, when he used it to defend apartheid in South Africa. The crime rate is actually lower in diverse Mt Albert than in some of Auckland's whiter, more homogenous communities, like Papakura and Pukekohe. Some of the Auckland communities with the largest numbers of immigrants - Botany Downs, for instance, which has high numbers of immigrant Chinese, Koreans, Tamils, and Sinhalese - have the lowest crime rates. It is income levels, not racial mixes, which correlate with crime rates in Auckland. Poorer suburbs tend to have higher crime rates than richer suburbs, whether they are very racially mixed or not.

Nor is there evidence to suggest that domestic violence is most prevalent in parts of Auckland where races are most mixed, and where numbers of whites are lowest - people who run refuges have repeatedly stated that battered women come from all parts of the city and all ethnic groups.

Daly remains a Holocaust denier, as well as a racist, if a letter he wrote to the magazine of the Australian wing of the League of Rights last year is any guide. Daly's letter commented on the experiences of Frederick Toben, the high-profile Australian neo-Nazi and the Holocaust denier, in Britain in 2008. Toben was arrested after landing at Heathrow airport, and imprisoned for a month while German officials tried to have him deported to their country, where he faced charges of Holocaust denial. Toben was eventually released, and allowed to return to Australia, where he was jailed in August 2009 on a separate charge of inciting hatred against Jews. Daly's letter was written in response to a League of Rights article defending Toben from his accusers:

I wonder if it would be a safer line for people sympathetic to Dr. Toben's views to argue, whenever challenged, that "since this seems to be an on going controversy perhaps there should be some sort of independent international investigation into why these deniers say what they say." I doubt that it would ever happen, at least not in today's environment, but it might be a safer response than saying "I question aspects of the holocaust". In the meantime you'd all better not have a holiday on the European Continent.

Daly's letter was clearly an attempt to offer advice on how to steer clear of the laws that Germany and a number of other countries have against Holocaust denial. Since it's not legal for people to openly deny the Holocaust in some parts of Europe, he thinks they should use an alternative, vaguer statement. Daly's epistle does not include an explicit denial of the Holocaust, but it leaves little doubt that his views on the subject are unchanged. If Daly were no longer an anti-semite and a Holocaust denier, would he be writing a letter to a magazine which specialises in anti-semitism and Holocaust denial, a letter which gives advice to Holocaust deniers on how to avoid legal prosecution?

Bill Daly is very unlikely to win one of the two Waitakere seats on the Auckland super city council. His election statement has been reproduced in a number of papers and newsletters, and on several websites, but he is running a low-key campaign, and he should be no match for heavyweight centre-left candidates like Sandra Coney, Paul Walbran, and Penny Hulse, not to mention the former Shipley government minister Marie Hasler.

But Bill Daly's campaign raises some troubling questions, because of the distance between the man's innocuous election statement and his real political views. How, we might justifiably ask, can voters be expected to make an informed choice about a candidate like Daly when he chooses to disguise his real political programme, and when the media fails to make that programme clear? And are there other, perhaps more popular, candidates for the super city council whose real political views also remain obscure, for most of the electorate?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Alan Brunton and the dream of a revolutionary art

In a comment under my last post to this blog Chris Trotter declares that there is 'nothing forlorn' about the idea of uniting art and left-wing politics. All that's needed to achieve such a task, according to Chris, is 'potency and fertility'. Attempts at political art are frustrated, though, when 'the politics turns cowardly and the art becomes incomprehensible'.

Chris' declaration is certainly resonant, but it seems to me to raise all sorts of questions. Who gets to judge, for instance, whether someone's politics are cowardly, and whether one or another piece of art is 'incomprehensible'? In a country where the Greens are considered a far left party, and where socialism is presently regarded as an alien political tradition, how can any coherent political programme hope to be popular, or even comprehensible, without being, from a radical left-wing perspective, 'cowardly'? And in a country where large numbers of people still expect poetry to rhyme, and still consider any visual art movement more recent than Impressionism to be an elitist fraud, how can any self-respecting artist disavow incomprehensibility? Could, say, Colin McCahon or Rita Angus have created their masterpieces without daring to be, for a large segment of the population, incomprehensible?

I don't have any easy answers to the questions Chris' comment implies, but I thought it might be worthwhile digging up an argument about Alan Brunton, one of New Zealand's most incomprehensible and most politically ambitious artists, which I had with Claudia Westmoreland back in 2003. 'Alan Brunton and the Counterculture: an unfinished dialogue' was published in an issue of brief dedicated to the man who co-founded the legendary '60s literary zine the word is freed, and who later became the main public face of the experimental theatre troupe Red Mole. The dialogue was composed at a time when I was very heavily involved in the movement against the invasion of Iraq, and my rather manic, preachy tone possibly reflects the fact that I had become habituated to writing political leaflets at short notice, sending daily polemical e mails to friends and foes, and making speeches from soapboxes to small and disinterested audiences at pickets and public markets...
Scott Hamilton and Claudia Westmoreland

SH: Alan Brunton’s often considered a difficult poet.

CW: I don’t find him difficult. It’s the term ‘difficult’, as it’s used in too much lit crit, which I find hard to swallow. I don’t know what it means, when applied to Brunton.

SH: Well, people find Brunton obscure. Not obscure in the sense that, say, John Ashbery is obscure. It doesn’t worry me when I don’t ‘get’ Ashbery – I don’t expect to ‘get’ Ashbery.

CW: He’s not exactly a forthcoming guy.

SH: But he is around about the most acclaimed living poet in the language, right? People don’t find the obscurity an obstacle to reading him. But with Brunton it’s different – with Brunton there is a sense of a desire to say something, to say something in the charmingly old-fashioned sense that Shelley and Blake wanted to say something. A lot of people pick up on Brunton’s visionary ambitions – he doesn’t exactly disguise them – but they can’t grasp his vision. And that frustrates them, I think.

CW: Perhaps they’ve been ruined by English lit courses. Do they expect highlighted passages and flow charts to take them through the poems?

SH: I think it is Brunton himself who raises expectations.

CW: A visionary poet is not an essayist. You can’t express a poetic vision – you’re right, the phrase sounds old-fashioned – in non-poetic language, and poetic language is often opaque.

SH: I don’t find the opaque quality of Brunton’s poems satisfying. What I’m interested in doing is using an altogether less opaque work, his memoir of the 1960s counterculture called Years Ago Today, to get a handle on the poems. I’m particularly interested in the way Brunton seems to have become a poet in opposition to the social formation that existed in New Zealand and the rest of the West in his youth, a formation sometimes called social contract society. The first section of Years Ago Today is devoted to a critical narrative of that society – it’s quite a ride, from the A Bomb to 'Rock Around the Clock' to Prime Minister Holyoake in eight or nine pages. CW: I can’t imagine Brunton using a phrase like social contract society.

SH: Whatever you call it, popular history and memory all too often reduce it to a few kitschy images, unchallenging stereotypes.

CW: ‘Old Zealand’...the Pavlova Paradise...or Pig Island, depending on your point of view...

SH: It’s either looked back at nostalgically as God’s Own Country, the mutton and pavlova paradise, or condemned as a fragment of East Germany marooned in the South Pacific. Similarly simplistic pictures are painted of the same era in other Western countries.

CW: The picture might be simple because the society was simple. Isn’t that what Brunton is complaining about? You complain about the complexity of Brunton’s poetry, then call that poetry a reaction to this social contract society. Isn’t the link obvious? Brunton’s imagination was on overload because he’d grown up in such an unimaginative society. Have you heard about those experiments in sensory deprivation, the ones where geeks in white coats float volunteers in soundless pods of lukewarm water? After a few minutes brains go into overload, compose fantastic hallucinations. Hamilton in the early '60s was like one of those pods. I bet Brunton was in overload well before he smoked his first joint.

SH: You’re confusing boring with simple. A society can be quite intricately boring, you know. I say that New Zealand between 1935 and 1984 was a social contract society because it was based on a deal between its two most important classes, the working class and the ruling class. The working class accepted, for the most part, the ‘large print’ of the contract – accepted, for the most part, the existence of capitalism – in return for a welfare state, a somewhat more secure lifestyle, and a degree of political influence exercised through the heavily mediated forms of the Labour party and the trade unions. The ruling class accepted the decreased profits and flexibility the welfare system and the new cohering role of the social contract state threatened to create, in return for long-term relative stability in the labour market and the disappearance of the spectre of working class insurrection. Both sides’ acquiescence to the contract owed a great deal to the exhaustion and anxiety the Great Depression had brought to them.

CW: There’s nothing like financial deprivation to stunt the imagination...

SH: Upon its narrow strip of liberated territory the working class struggled to build a world in which its needs and desires were expressed and satisfied. Consider, for example, ‘the Great Kiwi Bach’, one of the sacred symbols of the contract society. The bach, which could only be occupied during holidays and weekends, represented the aspirations of its owner for his or her own ‘free time’ - for his or her time away from the alienated labour capitalism imposed. Baches and bach communities were places where workers attempted to take holidays from capitalism itself...Bach communities were often staunchly egalitarian, and in a sense they were the true, popular descendants of the utopian communities planned and occasionally established by nineteenth century intellectuals.

Despite all that they hinted at, though, baches and bach communities were never properly autonomous: they depended for their existence upon the alienated labour their owners undertook in a capitalist economy...Now, after reading Years Ago Today I think Alan Brunton hated social contract society. He hated the ‘implacable Protestant bankers’, the ‘Christian socialist’ politicians, the ‘militaristic and segregated’ schools. Years Ago Today is the record of a battle against social contract society – a battle fought on the field of culture.

CW: You’re making Brunton into some sort of politician. Was he some sort of Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, or was he a poet liberating himself? Anselm Hollo said that poets aren’t interested in solving the problems of the world, they want to stay in their rooms and giggle into their notebooks. Anselm wrote that in his notebook. Brunton won his battle the day he skipped his appointment with the barber and checked out of Hamilton. The freed poems are celebrations of his own liberation, not some sort of political manifesto. You treat Brunton like he’s Herbert Marcuse – I’d rather compare him to Frank Sargeson, another Hamilton boy who blazed his own trail. Are Sargeson’s stories manifestos, or records of an individual’s struggle for freedom?

SH: You are separating politics and art in a way which is very easy to do in the West today. But in 1969 the separation wasn’t easy to achieve. You’re saying Brunton smoked but he didn’t inhale? Read Years Ago Today: it is the cultural expressions of social contract society that Brunton kicks hardest against, but he often makes links to politics and even economics. Years Ago Today is long on cultural history and short on political economy: it is fair to argue, in fact, that Brunton treats social contract society as first and foremost a cultural phenomenon. Brunton is aware, of course, of the economic and political history of the 50s and 60s, but he seems to explain that history as a by-product of more deeply-rooted cultural attitudes and practices. But I get the very clear impression that Brunton was interested in understanding and changing the whole society he lived in, and one of the reasons he was so interested in culture was because he thought it was the key to society, the keystone of the building he wanted to demolish.

CW: Keystone?

SH: For Brunton the conformity and philistinism of the 50s were not the products of an economic and political arrangement – they were the reasons for that arrangement. I’ve got to quote you his explanation for Walter Nash’s ‘black budget’ in 1958:

The lay preacher Minister of Finance, Arnold Nordmeyer, increased sales taxes on beer, cigarettes, records and clothes. Tax on cars was increased 100% Pleasure, the socialist decided, should cost so much that pleasure hurt, or was at least earned.

Now that’s a silly explanation, in my opinion. In 1957-58 was there was a jolt in the world economy, there were balance of payments problems right across the world, a Kiwi creed of ‘Christian socialism’, as Brunton calls it, had nothing much to do with things.

Brunton’s belief in the primacy of the cultural went hand in hand with his conflation of all the main political parties and social groups in New Zealand in the 50s and 60s. National and Labour, boss and worker were all equally implicated in and privileged by social contract society. And they were united not by the common interests posited by Fabian theorists of the 40s and 50s, but by the shared cultural values summed up in that curious phrase ‘Christian socialist’.

There is a grain of truth, to be sure, in Brunton’s assessment. Social contract society was marked by an unusual degree of cooperation between capital and labour, and by a conformity and apathy valourised by Fabian phrases like’ then end of class struggle’ and ‘the end of ideology’. The '50s must have seemed a long way from the 30s. But underneath the apparent harmony of the post-war paradise were profound conflicts of interest and a chronically unstable economic system. The minor shock of 1958 was a symptom of the forces which by the 1970s had created a profound economic and social crisis across the West, and which necessitated the tearing up of the social contract.

CW: So Brunton wasn’t a prophet...

SH: My point is that the strategy of changing society fundamentally by overturning its dominant cultural expressions is ineffective. It’s cutting a branch off a sick tree. Brunton chose the wrong strategy because Brunton’s perspective was wrong. He mistook a branch for a trunk. Listen to this quote from Years Ago Today:

Jim and I hitched back to Auckland in October. It took us three days but that was time enough to develop a paradigmatic model for the resituation of New Zealand in an alternate universe. The shift would begin with the imagination and be at the hands of the Cultural Liberation Front...The new culture needed visual aid, mysterious and anti-radical icons...We would perform, be shaman-showmen, be ‘the shaggy’. The socialists had failed to end conflict, now it would be erased from consciousness. Our works were to be anti-rational and closed to interpretation.

Brunton wanted to use the resources of culture – poetry, music, dance, theatre, and more – to attack the reigning cultural institutions and practices of New Zealand society. It was culture, after all, which was the keystone of that society. The judicious bombardment of the senses would turn audiences on to ‘alternative’ ways of thinking and feeling; ‘straights’ would become ‘freaks’ and swell the tribes of the counterculture. The established culture’s collective mind would begin to go out, the hold of its coercive institutions would weaken, new ways of thinking and living would become possible on the expanding margins of society...

CW: I think you take that quote far too seriously. You also assume that Brunton thought that cultural struggle was the only way forward. He may have been sympathetic, in a somewhat passive way, to more conventional types of political action, and gotten into the cultural stuff because he enjoyed it, not because he had any great expectations. Let’s face it, what would you rather do: sell the People’s Voice in Otahuhu or jam with Space Waltz in Albert Park?

SH: But it’s extraordinary how easily Brunton conflates what we’d call the counterculture with the much wider and much more important social and political conflicts of the late '60s and 70s. The massacre at My Lai, for instance, is seen in Years Ago Today as “an attack on the counterculture”! I thought that was pretty bizarre.

CW: It may seem strange because it makes you think about the Vietnamese national liberation struggle in a new way. But wasn’t part of the motive force for the resistance in that country, not to mention the resistance in Iraq today, a desire to preserve a culture against the onslaught of the consumer capitalist society that Brunton hated?

SH: OK...but you seem to be contradicting yourself. A while back you were saying Brunton’s poetry had no political intent...

CW: You are the one contradicting yourself. You’re prepared to endorse the counterculture in Vietnam, where it won, but you criticise it as an inevitable loser in New Zealand. SH: Vietnamese national culture was a popular culture. It had a social base, organic links to the population. It wasn’t a few hippies sitting in a park. And the Vietnamese cultural resistance, if you want to call it that, was integrated with a political and military strategy. They didn’t attack Apache helicopters with their revolutionary theatrical troupes. If you want to bring in strange comparisons, try Charles the first. He thought that theatre, poetry were magic. He spent on actors instead of armaments. He tried to win the Civil War with an elaborate stage spectacle in which he was the star.

CW: That is daft. I think Brunton would like it...

SH: I think it would be useful to compare the counterculture Brunton helped establish with the cultural organisations of the Waterside Workers Union before 1951. The destruction of Jock Barnes’ Waterside Workers Union in 1951 set the seal on social contract society. The WWU’s industrial militancy and progressive views were at odds with the institutionalised class collaboration and cultural conservatism of the social contract. After 1951, few people knew about the very strong cultural institutions maintained by Jock Barnes’ WWU. Few people know about them today. The union sponsored not just the usual rugby and cricket teams but chess clubs, brass bands, a debating society, and study groups equipped with libraries.

The WWU’s advanced opinions – the union opposed war and apartheid and supported pay equity decades before almost any other part of the country – permeated its cultural organisations, which to some extent provided an alternative to the backwardness of mainstream mid-century New Zealand. It can be argued that the WWU and its periphery represented the best example of an oppositional working class culture to exist in New Zealand, at least since the defeat of the Red Federation of Labour in the General Strike of 1913. Brunton’s generation grew up knowing little or nothing of this real counter-hegemonic culture: for them, working class politics were synonymous with economistic, compromised trade unions and the ‘Old Left’ of Stalinised Communist Parties. That’s a tragedy...

CW: All you are setting up is another essentially sentimental contrast. Before it was the heroic peasants in black pyjamas over the middle class hippies; now it’s the heroic Kiwi jokers in their blue overalls standing in the limelight. It is Brunton’s poetry and not some sort of political achievement which stands as the test of the value of his time in the counterculture, if you want to call it that. What poets of value did the WWU produce? Where are New Zealand’s Marxist poets? The Communist Party took away RAK Mason’s voice and got Gordon Watson killed. Hone Tuwhare had to leave to free himself as a writer...

SH: You shouldn’t confuse the Communist Party with Marxism! I wanted to discuss Brunton’s relationship with Allen Curnow. Years Ago Today records an interesting confrontation between teacher and student:

Curnow taught Edgar Wind and iconographic studies between lighting matches for his miasmal pipe but not that Spenser was in Ireland as part of a genocidal adventure for his ‘Qveene’. At a reading by South African dissident poet Dennis Brutus, when I claimed that poetry linked the politics and the ethics of the system it was created for, Curnow demanded this apostasy be apologised for.

It’s significant, isn’t it, that Brunton takes Curnow on over the connection between culture and politics?

CW: There are other reasons why he’d want to take Curnow on. Stylistic reasons.

SH: Indeed. It is no surprise that Brunton rounded on the man who symbolised the literary nationalism and official realism that dominated New Zealand writing in the 1950s and 60s. ‘Founding fathers’ of modern New Zealand literature like Curnow and Frank Sargeson fitted their language and to some extent their subject matter and themes to a ‘New Zealand scene’ designed to gell with a set of political imperatives.

It’s opposition to this instrumentalising of language, subject and theme which explains the name Brunton chose for his magazine. When Brunton said he wanted the word freed, he wasn’t using a fanciful figure of speech, or conforming to some doctrine of the ‘autonomy of language’: he was attacking a specific aesthetic, a specific social relationship, and a specific society. Brunton saw that the aesthetic Curnow represented underwrote a contract between mainstream New Zealand writers and the society they lived in. The professionalisation of New Zealand literature, the establishment of hallowed institutions like Landfall, the academic post occupied by Curnow: all had been made possible by a careful delineation of acceptable style and subject, and a forceful proscription of other styles and subjects. Brunton wanted to reject this ‘aesthetic contract’, to put poetry out on strike. To this end he gave the readers of freed wild abstractions, or absurd mismatches of subject and style. The word was freed from Curnow’s nationalist realism, because it was freed from all mimeticism. Check out this passage from Years Ago Today:

In Viet Nam, soldiers ‘fragged’ their officers [threw fragmentation grenades at them]. By fragmentation and revolutionary zeal the world would be changed, the West would dissolve as everyone stopped work to make sense of freed.

CW: In his History of New Zealand Literature, Patrick Evans quotes a passage from Brunton’s freed, and claims ‘this is how poets write when they feel excluded from the literary establishment’. But Brunton is not crying with anguish in the wilderness. Evans’ is a history from the top down, a courtier’s history, and no courtier can imagine lack of ambition as a virtue. Evans sees the literary establishment as a wonderful castle, a desirable place for young poets on a sort of Harry Potter trip; Brunton, on the other hand, sees a prison.

SH: A lot of Brunton’s freed looks crazy, but the craziness is a kind of celebration: outside the prison of official realism the poems party. But how long can a party last? CW: The longer the better, because the hangover comes after...

SH: Alan Brunton’s tragedy, I think, was that he never succeeded in anchoring the freed word to a new conceptual framework, a new vision. With the passing of the aesthetic contract and the society that had created it, Brunton’s style was in danger of looking like madness without method. Worse still, the cooption of the counterculture’s politics of difference by neoliberalism meant that the style Brunton had pioneered in New Zealand was in danger of entering the enemy’s service.

CW: Leigh Davis, avant-garde poet and ruthless Fay Richwhite exec! But your problem is you prefer the hangover to the party. Brunton wasn’t the only one partying in the '70s and '80s. freed helped liberate a generation of New Zealand poets. Hell, more than one generation – think of the turn Curnow took in the '70s to produce his finest work. Was the old bugger even writing poems when he ran into Brunton in the late '60s? I don’t think so.

SH: But Brunton himself was not happy just partying. I think he tried til the end of his life to find a conceptual framework capable of satisfying his visionary ambitions and his extraordinary verbal and imaginative energy. He tried out personae and alter egos, from 'Cockroach' to Ernest Rutherford. He wrote about his adventures overseas, trying to find the narrative in travel. But the alter egos sounded more like poetry than people, and the journeys sounded more imaginary than real. There is a peculiar, disturbing confusion in Brunton’s later poetry. Listen to this passage, which I found in Ecstasy, the last book of poems to come out in his lifetime:

25 violins. Transitive part
of the transitive verb,
useful in the night, pot of grief,
lost and found combinations,
not thinking about anything. The road
to next year we face
without fear though it stretches ahead
for miles. Respect for the dizzy creatures
who live with us as our Family.

What is happening here? Words form phrases which flail about, then disintegrate; images blaze and recede, but do not illuminate each other. Because this is Brunton, we can be sure that the poet is struggling as hard as the reader. Brunton is trying not so much to express as to capture meaning: to find the concepts to cohere his language and imagination. I don’t think that he is successful.

CW: I like it, but then I’m not looking for the same thing as you. You’re looking for a finished meaning, a finished poem, something with its shirt tucked in and socks pulled up. Something TS Eliot can explicate in an essay for a journal nobody reads any more. What you’re getting is not a poem like that, not even a poem, but poetry, in the purest sense, in the sense of an energy flow – a flow of verbal and imaginative power. And part of the excitement of the poem, and your own bafflement, come from the feeling that the energy is not entirely under control, cannot easily be turned off or channelled.

SH: You make me sound all old-fashioned and schoolmasterish.

CW: Is Master Brunton being failed? How can such a brilliant and enthusiastic student be failed? Surely it is the examiner who ought to be failed?

SH: I’m trying to argue that Brunton fails to reach the goals he sets himself as a poet, and that there is a political context for his failure, but that he is nevertheless one of the most important figures in contemporary New Zealand poetry. It is the very nature of Brunton’s failure that makes him a special poet. Brunton was a visionary poet in an era without vision. That was his tragedy, but it was also his achievement. CW: You’re a schoolmaster who’s afraid to tell the pupil off. Must you go traipsing through history looking for excuses for the problems you find in Alan Brunton’s poems? Can’t you at least be honest and place the responsibility for your reading squarely on the shoulders of the man himself? That’s what Eliot would do...

SH: I know what you mean. Why didn’t Brunton just select the files marked SUBJECT MATTER and THEME? There’s loads of stuff in the world and loads of ideas about that stuff. Pick up a book by one of Brunton’s more appreciated contemporaries – by Bill Manhire, or Ian Wedde – and you’ll find plenty of interesting subjects and interesting ideas. No language on holiday there. Brunton himself tried the trick with Moonshine, a long poem based on the life of Rutherford. When Moonshine collapses into hopeless because apparently unintended obscurity, isn’t Brunton and Brunton alone to blame?

CW: But is Moonshine so obscure? Richard Taylor doesn’t think so. You should read his explication.

SH: Taking an explication from Richard Taylor is like taking a character reference from your mother. It won’t hold up in court. But I’m not asking for some line by line explanation. I’m not trying to scan the bloody thing. My argument is that Brunton’s language actually gets in the way of an understanding of his subject. There is some fabulous language in the book, and there is some fabulous information hidden somewhere beneath that language. Brunton was a talented writer, Rutherford had an interesting life. Couldn’t they have worked together?

But I think we need to cut the man some slack by considering the type of poet he wanted to be. It’s hard to imagine Manhire ending one of his creative writing classes by shouting THE NEW POETRY WILL BE MAGICAL, to pick the phrase Brunton tried on puzzled patrons of the Seeing Voices conference back in 1997. Brunton wanted to write visionary poetry – it was no mistake that he began his Seeing Voices oration by name checking Shelley. My argument is that Brunton spent most of his career as a poet living in a cultural climate which made visionary poetry well-nigh impossible.

CW: Once again, you make the mistake of confusing visionary poets and political essayists. How clear do you find Blake’s prophetic books? Sometimes the language, the images, the poem’s performance are the vision.

SH: Well, allow me to run through my schoolmasterish argument. Imagine you’re back at Rangitoto College. In the 1970s and '80s the counterculture got co-opted. Communal farms became an organic industry; radical feminists became liberal academics; pirate radio became commercial FM. Today the difference the counterculture celebrated as subversive is a mark of conformity.

CW: The counterculture got co-opted! Do you think the folks scraping a subsistence living in the Hokianga complained when the Europeans started fussing about fertiliser and went organic? Do you think Jeanette Fitzsimmons was kidnapped from that Coromandel commune and dumped in parliament grounds?

SH: I don’t think Brunton was happy with the cooption of his strategy. Back to the lecture: when the costs of a welfare state and unionised, regimented labour force became intolerable, capital’s managers swapped Keynesianism for neoliberalism: the state and the labour force were recomposed, as the economy was ruthlessly trimmed of dead capital. Privatisations, deindustrialisation, mass lay offs, you know the drill. From the Rogernomes’ acid bath a leaner, meaner society would emerge. In this new society conformity is maintained not by the old collectivist institutions and rituals of ‘Christian socialism’, but by the atomisation and cultural differentiation of a cowed working class.

Forty years ago almost every age group would spend their Saturday nights doing the same thing - watching the one channel of the new-fangled TV, or the only movie playing in town...Today, even that section of the population covered by the label 'youth' is fragmented into a bewildering array of subcultures, each of which
can in turn be subdivided. In the sphere of music, for instance, we have hip hop, metal, electronic, trad guitar music, 'alternative' guitar music and so on. Each of
these genres contains its own subgenres with their own lore and ritual.

I don't suppose I'll win many plaudits by contrasting the music scene of today with the soap scene of yesterday, but I do think it's interesting to recall a comment which many older New Zealanders will make, when they are questioned about the coming of TV to their country in the 60s. 'Everyone watched it', they'll say, 'and there was only one channel. Everyone would be talking about what happened on Coro Streetthe night before.' Now, this may sound like a description of hell, but I've decided that it shows up, in grotesquely-distorted form, one of the necessary conditions for a truly democratic society. Confused?

CW: Very.

SH: I don't blame you. Consider, though, another ubiquitous TV memory from the 60s: the appearance of Vernon Cracknell, leader and only MP for the Credit Political League, on national TV, for a pre-election broadcast.

CW: Oh Christ...

SH: No swearing in the classroom please...The country had been primed for the broadcast for weeks by Social Credit devotees, and Cracknell had a huge audience for what is generally considered to be the worst piece of political propaganda in New Zealand history. I've never seen the broadcast myself, but apparently Cracknell spent all his time with a miniblackboard and chalk, writing mathematical sums and lecturing his rapidly-diminishing audience on the intricacies of Social Credit economic policy.

Cracknell's performance destroyed Social Credit for ten years: hundreds of thousands of Kiwis decided he was selling gobbledygook, which he was, and turned off his party permanently. Even today, many old-timers remember the broadcast! If only they paid as much as attention to the policy details of today's bourgeois parties! I thought of the Cracknell broadcast while reading a report on the election campaign being a while back fought in Ireland. The article suggested that the current Prime Minister of the country, Bertie Ahern, had been well-beaten in a live TV debate by the leader of the opposition, but that the defeat would not matter too much, because few people would have watched the debate. No wonder they weren't! Who would stay and home and watch a boring election debate, when the bright lights of a thousand subcultures beckon!

What I'm suggesting is that we need homogeneity as well as difference to create a healthy human society. We need the difference which results from the making of free choices by individuals, but the homogeneity which is necessary to ensure the creation and maintenance of the conditions that allow free choice for all...Today, the countercultural demand for difference is a conservative demand, or a demand with conservative consequences. Alan Brunton was a visionary poet who wanted to speak to the people about universal truths. But the late twentieth century Western culture deprived Brunton of the public discourse that was the precondition for the sort of communication he wanted. It is not merely that Brunton was unable to find a mass audience. William Blake did not speak to more than a tiny minority of a section of British society, yet this minority believed his vision to be universal, relevant in its implications to all sections of society. The French Revolution and the protracted crisis of British society gave Blake symbols and arguments with which he and his readers could map the whole of their world. Is there one contemporary Western poet who can do the same?

It was Brunton’s tragedy and achievement to persist with the countercultural project symbolised by freed long after it became counterproductive. The counterculutre had valourised difference, assuming wrongly that cultural homogeneity was a necessary condition of capitalism. Without the cultural homogeneity he hated, Brunton’s struggled to find meaning. In a text called Millennium: What’s left to the Imagination?, for instance, Brunton looked ahead, but could only imagine the future in terms of the past. Listen to this quote:

We can expect a revival of division over basic social problems we thought had been solved: the division between left and right will be fought out on the issues of family values ... feminism, abortions, choice: to work outside the home?

That’s Brunton is conjuring the monster he loathed and needed: the ‘Christian socialist’ society of his youth.

CW: May I speak now I’ve raised my hand? You need to get out more. Brunton’s words would be far from outdated in Te Awamutu, or Gore.

SH: But Brunton didn’t live in those places. The historical narrative in Years Ago Today ends with Brunton fleeing Auckland on a transtasman ferry. The scene had gotten too heavy. Here’s how he puts it:

As I rolled through Auckland with eyes like saucepans, there was commotion. Vice-President Agnew was visiting from the United States. Protesters against the visit of this egregious monster were beaten by Police. It was the police who started the riot; they chased protesters into the university and adjacent park, thrashing them with sticks. The University administration declared that Police had rightful access to the campus to control protest. It was time to go.

Brunton’s departure really symbolises the failure of countercultural politics to deal with reality. CW: Brunton’s travelling was at one with his writing. It was a part of his aesthetic: a physical expression of the freedom, space, and openness to chance that you can find in the poetry and the play scripts, as well I suspect as Years Ago Today, a book which you seem to insist on treating as some sort of solemn historical chronicle. Brunton’s travels weren’t a retreat but an advance.

SH: But Brunton’s flight reflects the fact that counterculural politics can only exist in a privileged space out of reach of the truncheons. When the scene gets heavy political rather than cultural action becomes compulsory: squares with truncheons won’t listen, even derisively, to poetry readings. A young voyant can live with indifference, derision even, but not with the rude hand of repression sweeping him into the same category as the ordinary students and workers the cops attacked in Auckland University.

Brunton’s travels in more or less exotic lands gave him the indifference that is the minimum wage of the visionary. In Darwin or in Mexico or in New York City Brunton was a professional outcast – he was alienated and protected by the visionary’s ignorance. Ignorance creates distance, which aestheticises: I see Brunton abroad as the young Chagall wandering the wondrous streets of Paris, magically protected from mundanity and ordinary attention by his ignorance of the French tongue and customs.

CW: And why should Chagall have stayed in Russia? When he went back to Russia, wasn’t he richer for his experience? You appear to be determined to argue from Brunton’s biography to his oeuvre and back again, in a circular fashion, to prop up an argument which was always based on false assumptions.

SH: Well, I do see exceptions in the poetry. I wanted to talk about ‘Movie’, a sequence of poems from Ecstasy, where the usual verbal fireworks explode alongside the funeral of the poet’s father:

My father died in December.
With my brothers I carried him
to the low house reserved
for dead soldiers.
When it was my turn to speak
I recalled driving through green paddocks
in his chevrolet, the road driving into my eyes.
It was the first day of the holidays.

The sadness and the no-frills realism charge the next section of the poem, where Brunton announces that:

Language is my neighbourhood.
I live in Alphabet City.
The people who live here open their hearts to the sun.

Today was the birthday of Louis Braille, inventor of a
reading system for the blind,
the day the Sputnik fell to earth.

In other poems the self-mythologising can be irritating, and the range of reference can be bewildering. Here, though, I think they’re made poignant by juxtaposition with the details of the poet’s real life. The self-mythologising suddenly sounds like a cry of loneliness, and Braille and the Sputnik complement rather than complicate the mood Brunton has established. Call it the ironic juxtaposition of visionary pretension and reality. ‘Movie’ is a signpost for a road out of the swamp of Brunton’s later work. But would Brunton have wanted to take the road? Would he have wanted to pay the toll of irony, of self-deprecation even? Would Brunton have wanted his visionary fantasies falling back to an earth where he lived amongst ‘the ruins of the poor’?

CW: You should take more responsibility for your reading. It is you, not Brunton, who has constructed it. The raw material for the sort of reading you have performed exists throughout Brunton’s work. A book of Brunton's is a sort of fantastic quarry. The material is there: the reader only has to work. If the reader doesn’t want to work that’s fine, of course: the stones strewn about make beautiful abstract sculptures. I enjoy my laziness...