Imaginary Toads: VIII – Mike Minehan (2001)

David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)

VIII – A Conversation with Mike Minehan

from Rotorua 1955

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
the dead stunned eye of at trout, is outraged

– Mike Minehan

Mike Minehan: The Long Hot Summer Singing (1997)

Mike Minehan has published:
  • No Returns. Hard Echo Press, 1989.
  • Embracing the Dark. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1991.
  • Suicide Season. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1997.
  • Writing Lives – Ending Silences. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1997.
  • The Long Hot Summer Singing. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1997.

The house is a long low bungalow, pushing out into a large garden with views of the river and the hills.

I’m out of touch. 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 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. 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.

I’ve been thinking of this whole thing of geography. I’ve lost my sense of being a New Zealander: 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 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. I always had this dream of living 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 require. I’ve written four books here and I’m getting 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: places 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.

What would you say were the main influences on your writing?

I am not influenced by any New Zealand author, living or dead. And no, not James K. Baxter, especially not J. K. B. 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 really been an influence on me: Adrienne Rich; more recently Ann-Marie MacDonald.

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 was that I started the way most young writers do, with a 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 that I realised it was valid for me to be writing the way I was. Up until that point I felt exposed, worthless. She, and subsequently Anne Sexton, helped to validate what I was writing about. But there is always the question with this kind of poetry, do you have to justify 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. There’s a tendency for people, particularly men, to look at my work and assume that I’m coming from a post-feminist point of view, with this ambiguity towards my relationships with men. I suppose if you’re going to take the old line that the personal is political, then there could be something in it – but the trouble is that the work is 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 feel I’m expected to write up to some kind of expectation. And the place that this stuff comes from is 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.

here & there
on michele roberts ‘teresa’ book

it’s possible nothing is new
that you there in a leaf strewn room
with flagstones under your feet
& a cat curled in a ball
alone with paper & thick black pen
dreamed long of that saint
wondered her for a story or a poem
boned up on here & caught her in words

and that you thought, brushing
a hand through your hair
wrinkling your nose against the warm scents
of rosemary and wild thyme
a draft blowing in off the hot provençal afternoon
a distraction caught like a petal
that she was yours.

this thing we do with words
women catching women and making stories
of each other
saying this is it maybe, or not, is not new.
That saint captured me too one day
in autumn as I held two red books
beaten by time,
and sat learning her by heart
in the shade of an apple tree half a world away
from Provence and you.

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 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 – talking till four, five, six in the morning. You go to an Authors’ Society meeting now and see if there’s any of that. You look at their lives, and ask: ‘What are you doing? What have you done?’ It’s so controlled.

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.’

Restoring the capital letters now would seem an extraordinary act.

Especially with the ‘i.’ After I published my second book, my mother wouldn’t talk to me for six months. She took it personally. Although the work was confessional, there were elements 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. People might think: ‘I could do that,’ and forget the process – but it is a craft and the craft has been honed.

My audience is primarily women. I’m writing from my feminine perspective, saying: this is the story of all women, I’m going to share it with you. But I’m also writing for a broader audience, 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. And because I’m writing so intensely 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; Louis Johnson, and 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 reclusive over time – getting the grocer to leave the stuff at the gate. With a computer and a fax, I don’t have to see anyone.

I still have difficulty referring to myself as a poet. I don’t think I’m good enough yet. I don’t think I’ve earned my spurs. I look at the first book now, and see how I’ve evolved. You get braver as you go on. You focus on the craft more than the blood-letting. 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 found the long piece about Jerusalem in your first book particularly interesting.

I’ve redone that poem slightly for an autobiographical book – it was written for my son as 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?

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, the day I drove down to Jerusalem, my arrival there, and Jerusalem itself. But I also talk about the effect that experience had on my life. It’s pivotal to everything I do, think, and breathe. 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 some wonderful experience in the hills – who had a mythical relationship with this bearded mad poet. To me, it’s something incredibly important in my life. As a result of Jerusalem I had a child, I went mad, I was in jail for a night, and then Hemi died. 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 Dominic.

Hemi died. 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 approved, but I felt that I couldn’t let it go.

There are so many 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 this 25-year-old girl who got so lost as a result of all this, who was left feeling so terribly sorry.


Complete with Instructions. Edited by David Howard. ISBN 0-473-07646-2 (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 53-56.

[2789 wds]

Complete with Instructions (2001)

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