A Conversation with Mike Minehan
[Waikuku Beach, 10.30-noon, 6/2/98]
Mike Minehan: O Jerusalem
In the early morning, before daybreak, you can hear the lake
lipping the shingle of our bay
and my grandmother’s soft snores from the next bed
in the tiny room of a bach perched on a hill
Out there the island is dark and waiting
and the boat idles gently on its mooring.
an august moon silvers it, frosted at dawn
fish scales clinging like snowflakes to its deck
I am waiting too,
for his touch in the first light
my hero, my grandpapa, my captain
and he will come in the dawn to get me
We will push off into the cold waters
and towards the island steer our boat
and he will story me over and over
until I become the tale and brave
and tearing the thin knife down the belly of a fish
pulling its warm innards with my small hands
into the cold air, looking for eggs …– Mike Minehan, “rotorua 1955”
Mike Minehan has spent the last twenty years working in broadcasting, fifteen of those as a radio talk host/ journalist. She has published three books of poetry:
- No Returns. Hard Echo Press, 1989.
- Embracing the Dark. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1991.
- Suicide Season. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1997.
I arrived a little early, and took a short walk down to the beach. It was Waitangi Day; everything was still quiet. The house is a long low bungalow, pushing out into a large garden with views of the river and the hills.
We began with some small-talk about our mutual friend David Howard.
When I was up in Auckland last week he showed me the plans for his millennium celebration, but I just couldn’t make the connection between the struggling bloody garret-living poet I knew, and this entrepreneur. I’m a bit worried that the poetry might just go on a back-burner. I love his poems, I love his wonderful lyricism.
I guess that putting together this magazine Firebrand is some kind of bridge between wheeler-dealer and romantic poet.
It’s strange. Everybody’s writing poetry these days. David and I used to edit poetry together, and I’d ask the contributors: ‘Do you read poetry?’ The shock on their faces! ‘What poets have influenced you?’ I’d continue. ‘Don’t know,’ they’d answer.
What does the word ‘poetry’ mean to you?
It makes you wonder if you’re mad – mad for writing it yourself, for that matter.
Some ways are madder than others, though. Never reading any, for a start.
Have you spoken to any other poets yet?
How many women?
Ah, quite right. Well, actually my gender balance is three women to seven men, I’m afraid, which does seem a little out of proportion.
I’m out of touch. I don’t mix. I’m a bit of a recluse. I live out here, and bar myself behind these gates. I vowed I’d never move back; the literary scene doesn’t appeal to me at all. I just don’t feel comfortable in society – perhaps it’s because I had so many years as a public figure.
Do you go to the readings in Christchurch?
They used to ask me, but they’ve stopped now. I just hate reading here. I’ll read in Auckland, I’ll read in Timbuktu, but I won’t read in Christchurch. It’s because I’m so well known here for my radio work. I’ve talked out loud to them three hours a day for eighteen years as a talkback host, I’m writing about my life in an extremely exposed and personal way, and I simply don’t want them to see me. They’ve already been privy to so much. That’s also why I have an unlisted phone number and no address.
You’re happy here?
This is an actual community, very much a community. There are two Waikuku beaches, though. There’s the original one here, and the newer one just up the road. That one is more for commuters: expensive houses, cars. There’s quite a separation between the two. We definitely feel down here that we’re the real Waikuku beach.
You’ve just been up in Auckland, though?
Yes, and my senses were very much heightened at the time because my mother was dying. I seemed to be seeing things more acutely. The shock of going back was really profound, but I think under other circumstances I could even have enjoyed looking round again.
I was thinking of the whole thing of geography, though. I’ve lost my sense of being a New Zealander, as I knew it: that sense of wanting to weep as you fly in over a city like Auckland, where I grew up – the Waitakeres, a sense of being home. You get it when you sail up the Waitemata harbour or, driving up from the south, when you hit the Bombay hills. I’ve always been deeply affected emotionally by that vista of the city from the top of the hills.
So why Christchurch and the South Island?
I ran away from Auckland in 1974, and in ’75 I came down here for a few weeks, and I just stayed. I lived in Christchurch city for some years, and had actually never ventured north of Christchurch except to drive up to Auckland. I always had this dream of living by the sea, by the water, though.
We bought this house in 1984, and I found my heart stopped here, really. We’ve got the beach and the river, the streams and the forest. We have everything here that I could ever, ever require. I’ve written four books here and I’m getting a bit superstitious about my ability to write anywhere else.
Am I a Christchurch writer? No. I live here, but the geography I carry with me is from my past, those places which have been central for me: like Jerusalem, like Taranaki – and Rotorua. We had a bach on a hill overlooking the lake, and we spent every holiday there: water, springs, islands. The thing about Waikuku beach is that when I look up to these hills, they are almost identical to the hills I used to see at Rotorua. This is where I feel safe.
You feel safe because those other places are not here?
What would you say were the main influences on your writing?
I am not influenced by any New Zealand author or poet, living or dead.
That’s a good quote.
It’s an awful thing to admit, but it’s true. And no, not James K. Baxter, especially not J. K. B. No, my influences have been international. It’s true that I’m influenced by the lives of Sexton, Woolf, Plath, but I’ll tell you who’s been an influence on me: Adrienne Rich; more recently Ann-Marie MacDonald, who was a Commonwealth winner last year (and I’m not surprised).
Think about what I’ve just said: I’m influenced by these women who all committed suicide and led fraught lives. What happened to me as a young writer was that I started the way most young writers do, with a deeply emotional life which was in turmoil, and a sense of wanting to write. It wasn’t until I discovered Virginia Woolf in the Canterbury Public library in 1975, and it wasn’t subsequently till I discovered Anne Sexton, that I realised it was valid for me to be writing the way I was. Up until that point I felt exposed, worthless. They helped to validate the style, the truth of what I was writing about.
It wasn’t just the women, it was the men, too. I’ve just been reading the life of Robert Lowell. What a great writer! It was people like him and Elizabeth Smart – writers of that ilk I admire tremendously as human beings, because they stepped over what could be banal and merely confessional, blood on paper, and made it into what I think is true art.
It’s certainly a difficult stance. One feels with some of those Americans: Berryman, Plath, that there were people in the wings willing them to do it. If you don’t jump you’re going to be pushed.
And now we’ve got Ted Hughes writing a book about Sylvia Plath. He’s really lost it a bit, I think: a bloody eulogy to Sylvia! Everything he’s been prevented by feminists from saying all these years. Presumably that is confessional. It’ll sell like mad.
It’d only really work if he put his head in a gas oven. Sorry – tasteless.
What you’re really getting at is, with this kind of poetry, do you have to validate your vein by killing yourself or going mad?
Does that worry you?
I’ve lived on that knife’s edge all my life. It’s the impetus of most of the writing.
At the moment I’m coming to grips with a review that was done in Landfall. There’s a tendency for people, particularly men, to look at my work and immediately assume that I’m coming from a post-feminist point of view, and an ambiguity towards my relationships with men. I suppose if you’re going to take the old line of the personal is political, then there could be something in it, but the trouble is that it’s not reviewed for its literary value but its political value. It’s assumed that you’re banging a drum, that you’re bleeding all over the place.
I certainly feel as if I’m being expected to write up to some kind of expectation. And the place that this stuff comes from is pretty frightening, which is the reason why for long periods I won’t be able to write at all. That’s why it’s only really worked since I married John in 1982; since that time I’ve had a safety net, I’ve had someone around to pick me up. If it was full-on all the time I wouldn’t be able to survive.
Virginia Woolf couldn’t have lasted as long without Leonard.
A lot of the stuff you read about them is quite antagonistic to Leonard, but just imagine if she’d married Lytton!
We saw what happened to his girlfriends ...
Yes, Carrington. The fact is that Woolf has now got this amazing tribe of adopted daughters and granddaughters who try to protect her.
Of course, she was an awful snob.
She wouldn’t have spent five seconds with most of us. She was physically so terrifying, as well as being so appallingly intelligent and astute. I collect Bloomsbury stuff – anything at all. I’ve spent a fortune on it. I love their eccentricity and the wonderful egocentrism you find in certain classes of British people. We’re very apologetic in this country; we don’t want to be seen to be above our station – this dreadful colonial cringe. It’s lovely to fantasise that it could be possible to be like that here.
But you can’t in this country, because we’re so small. We all know each other. We’re so clean and proper and polite. I think that there used to be more eccentrics and more madness: there was a bunch of us in Dunedin: Olds, Oliver, Tuwhare, and others getting stoned and talking about poetry and words and literature – talking till four, five, six in the morning. You go to a Authors’ Society meeting now and see if there’s any of that.
Don’t you think that literature and poetry come from this deep well of life’s experience? You look at their lives, and ask: ‘What are you doing? What have you done?’ It’s so controlled.
Yeah, but .. um, going off at a tangent here, why do you always use the lower case?
I started doing that because I couldn’t type, and I was writing so quickly on an old Remington that I couldn’t be bothered pushing the hard heavy shift-key down. That was how I sent it off to Broadsheet magazine, and they printed it in lower case, too. I hadn’t expected it, but when I saw it, I thought: ‘Oh, I quite like that.’ Everybody else’s was just in normal style, so it wasn’t a planned thing; that was how it happened.
What I do have an objection to is poems that have a lot of spaces in them. I try not to do it myself unless it’s to make a very clear point. For me, the lower case is just simple laziness. I would like to try not doing that, but so far it hasn’t quite felt the same. There’s something informal about it, and it doesn’t seem important enough to make a fuss about.
Whereas restoring the capital letters would seem such an extraordinary act.
Especially with the ‘i.’ After I published my second book, my mother wouldn’t talk to me for about six months. She took it so personally. Although it’s true that the work was confessional and autobiographical, there were elements too which were not me, not her. Christ, it was difficult. The moment you put ‘I’ on a piece of paper it’s very difficult for the reader to disassociate you from that ‘I.’
Another thing is that the work is perceived as being easy. I think people might think: ‘I could do that,’ and forget the process, but it is actually a craft and the craft has been honed.
My audience is primarily women. I’m writing from my feminine perspective, and saying, in a sense, that this is the story of all women, I’m going to share it with you. But I’m also writing for a broader audience. I’m also writing to be acknowledged as a writer of some literary merit. I’m writing to be read by my peers.
Young people now are very interested in the 60s and 70s – and Jerusalem. I travelled up-country to this wonderful school recently: a hundred or so teenage boys and girls. I read to them from Embracing the Dark, and I sold lots of copies, too. They wanted to know whether I’d written the truth, wanted to know how they could deal with their own lives, because they could see traces of themselves in there. I spent a couple of hours with them, and what it said to me was that there was a potential audience out there who want to learn about a different kind of literature. And because I’m writing so intensely and personally about my experiences growing up as a woman, they think: ‘Well, Jesus, if she can say that …’
They feel they know you.
They know me very personally. In a sense that’s a much realer audience than the literary ones, who are always going to look at it from a technical point of view.
Kendrick Smithyman gave me a lovely review of Embracing the Dark; I was sorry to hear he’d died recently. The late Louis Johnson in Wellington, Harry Ricketts at Victoria University: those three men – when I started getting brave enough to send poetry out, to decide that, yes, I was going to call myself a poet – they encouraged me, gave me hope. It’s strange that it was men who gave me confidence, told me that this was okay, that it wasn’t just Broadsheet, it wasn’t Eve or any of those women’s magazines. It was being accepted by the male hierarchy, so this wasn’t the bleeding of some post-menopausal woman. We all need that as writers.
I can see myself getting more and more reclusive over time – probably getting the grocer to leave the stuff at the gate. With a computer and a fax, I don’t have to see anyone at all. I felt very anonymous in Auckland. I could probably have enjoyed wandering around if it hadn’t been for the circumstances. I drove down to Pukekohe, on one of those awful nostalgia trips. What was once the most gorgeous little sleepy hollow … oh, Jesus.
New Zealanders have a great talent for making filth where beauty was.
I’d love to go to Auckland and do some readings, though.
You know, I still have great difficulty referring to myself as a poet. I don’t think I’m good enough yet. I still don’t think I’ve earned my spurs. I look at the first book now, and see how it evolves. You get braver as you go on. Your voice tempers the screams and the rages. You focus on the craft more than the bloodletting.
So you don’t think you’ve achieved a body of work that speaks for itself?
I’m dangerously menopausal. I’m fifty – that means a terrible risk of cancer, or dying of heart failure or a stroke. And for somebody who’s been suicidal for most of her adult life that’s not good. But the writing process is interesting now. I feel as if the first three books were necessary, but that I’m now moving to a different stage where maybe I can exert more control over the writing. I’ve got this Creative New Zealand grant to write about the influences I’ve had: Sexton and Plath, Robin Hyde, all of those women. In a sense, I’m trying to reclaim my identity as a New Zealand writer.
I found your first book particularly interesting in that respect – especially the long piece about Jerusalem.
I’ve redone that poem slightly for a book, an autobiographical thing – it was written for my son, an explanation of what was going on in those years. It was all ready to be published – about half an hour from the printer, and then I pulled it.
Will it ever appear, do you think?
It’s only a small book, and really I suppose what I’m having to come to grips with is: is it valid to do it? It’s very autobiographical. There’s very little of Hemi, Jim Baxter in it – it’s more my reactions to things. I talk about how we met. I talk about the day I drove down to Jerusalem, and my arrival there. I talk about Jerusalem itself, but then I also talk about the impact and the effect that experience had on my life. It’s pivotal to everything I do, think, and breathe. As a result of Jerusalem I got pregnant, and I also ended up in a psychiatric ward for six months, suicidal.
I wanted to write about it, because people still come to me and want to talk about Jerusalem and Hemi. They want to hear did he fart, did he smoke? It’s usually just little things they want to know about. I’ve become a kind of an authority.
Only, to them, I’m just this wild young hippie girl who had this wonderful experience in the hills – who had this mythical relationship with this bearded mad poet. To me, it’s something incredibly important in my life. As a result of it I had a child, I went mad, I was in jail for a night, and then he died; and he died the day after he’d come to see me, after we’d had this very, very long and emotional meeting about the child. He wanted to take the child down to Jerusalem, because I was obviously in no fit state to look after him.
He died, and he left me, and I was absolutely destroyed. After that I became anorexic: the grieving process, I suppose – women’s magazine stuff. To avoid that, I had to write very clearly, and as sparingly as possible, so I didn’t go into a lot of extraneous detail.
As I wrote, I was overcome by this amazing anger and sadness. The end of the book was a letter to Hemi, an angry sad letter. Dominic read it and he approved it, but I felt that I couldn’t let it go – that I would be in danger of being swamped by it. So it’s going to sit there, and I don’t know, maybe when I die it might be the time. There are other people to consider too.
You had to divorce Hemi the man from his poetry. Frank McKay’s biography didn’t do him justice. Nobody’s going to be able to tell the truth about him in New Zealand – you can do that sort of thing in America, but not in a small country like this. He’s such an icon, and there are still people alive who would find it unacceptable, even 25 years later. The true story is yet to be told, and it must be told – but when?
Yet, if one leaves it too long … you have to have people who actually knew him.
There are so many different versions of that story. That’s what I start off saying in my foreword, because we all knew a different Jim Baxter. There’ll be a composite man there –the alcoholic, the would-be saint, the failed family man, the madman – all the other different facets that went to make him that special person he was. I loved him deeply, and will always love him deeply. What was really interesting for me was the anger I felt in writing about it. It was for this 25-year-old girl who got so lost as a result of all this, who was left feeling so terribly, terribly sorry.
Yes, because, reading Suicide Season, I got the impression that there were a lot of omissions. As if there was a large thing left out. It didn’t seem as unified as the other two.
It was occasional, a very strange book to put together – it was all bits here and bits there. Embracing the Dark was wonderful to write. You get these long arid periods sometimes when you think you’ll never be able to write another word, but you also get these buzzes when you push the button and it explodes out, and it needs nothing doing to it, it just sits on the page.
Zoetropes: New Zealand Literature / Nga Pukapuka o Aotearoa online.
[Available at: http://www.arts.uwo.ca/~andrewf/zoetropes.htm (13/10/99)].