New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre
Alan Brunton, my publisher
Keeping the surprise alive
My first contact with Alan Brunton came when I sent him a typescript of my newly-completed novel – or “text,” or whatever you want to call it – Nights with Giordano Bruno. I’d recently published a review (by Richard Taylor) of his atomic-energy poem Moonshine in The Pander [9 (1999): 42-43], so I had an idea that Bumper Books might be hospitable to strange and offbeat work.
When I finally had the chance to check my email a couple of weeks later (I was travelling around the South Island at the time), this is what I found:
Sent:Tuesday, December 28, 1999 12:41 PM
Subject:Nights with G. B.
Season's Greetings and Millennial Fevers etc ...
Thank you for the Pander. Nice review of Moonshine! One of the very few ...
Also, for your letter and manuscript ... good to have the background laid out so clearly. …
I found the manuscript immediately attractive – just about covered all the sites I'm interested in too. As you say, not an easy book; the sort of thing you must either leave now or spend the rest of your life working with!
So, the problem is how to circulate the book. We (at Bumper International HQ) have talked and have a few thoughts …
Thanks for your trust. Let's talk it through.
All in all, a pretty positive response to an unsolicited manuscript from a complete stranger! “Just about covered all the sites I’m interested in” – Renaissance Hermeticism, Outer Space, urban angst – it was almost as if we were speaking the same language, though with completely different accents. (Later on, in an interview with Mark Pirie, he was kind enough to say: “Jack Ross showed me his manuscript and I was knocked away; this crazy, obsessively sexual novel … an echo in Auckland of Eco. …” [JAAM 16 (2001): 67].)
(Another example of shared interests came earlier this year, when I was travelling in India. I found a copy of Somadeva’s Katha Sarit Sagara [Ocean of the Streams of Story], a fabulously rare ten-volume compendium of Sanskrit fiction, in a little shop in Bangalore. I’d only seen it once before, in the Massey University Library (none of the libraries in Auckland has it), so I was – to put it mildly – rather surprised to see that Alan had used a xerox of its title page in his article “Illuminations” in brief [20 (2001): 7]. I’d been meaning to write and ask him about that, in fact. Was it a particular interest of his? Or was it just the bizarre nature of that particular title-page that struck him? Now I’ll never know.)
We only met four times, I realise, counting up. It seems like more, but perhaps that’s because of the amount of ground one can cover in an afternoon’s conversation.
- July 23rd, 2000: Coffee at Columbus’s
- December 14th, 2000: Book-launch in Wellington
- August 8th, 2001: Bad Language
- August 9th, 2001: Coffee in Ponsonby
the pattern must be simple
so it can be faked again and again– AB
We met at a café in High Street. I’d just been sent a review copy of Big Smoke, the anthology of sixties and seventies poetry Alan had edited with Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott, so we used that as a recognition signal. He came in with an old friend, another publisher (that was another trait, I would subsequently discover: taking one friend with him when he went to meet another – a sense of interconnections, not exclusions).
He seemed immensely self-confident and relaxed. Maybe it was all those years of performance; perhaps he was just easily amused by eager neophytes. In any case, we talked about plans for my book (which he’d now definitely decided to publish), about the anthology, about the abysmal failure of CNZ and other grants organisations to support this or any other of this printing projects.
He was not the sort of guy who refuses to talk business (“Why cain’t you never talk turkey,” as Pound once complained to Eliot), but it was obvious that it came a distinct second to his joy in the work itself – his missionary desire to wake people up, turn them on, transform their consciousness … all those sixties cliché’s, here magically brought to life.
God does not forgive
poets who make mistakes
God takes their jewellery away– AB
The day of the big launch. We met, to start with, at a café in Cuba Street. Michele Leggott came along, as they were going on together later to a Big Smoke reading in town, and we had a nice time assassinating reputations and denouncing the kinds of cosy domesticities that lead to success in this game.
“But if you write like that we won’t be interested in you,” said Michele. Tableau. They’d even forgiven me (apparently) for my Big Smoke review in the Listener, which came out sounding pretty carping once all the challenging bits had been sub-edited out. I felt ashamed of it, though – a squandered opportunity. One more example of how big a man Alan Brunton was. It didn’t seem to have occurred to him to blackball me as a result.
I haven’t got space to go into the baroque happenings at the reading. Suffice it to say that it was a fairly exhausting afternoon. Alan now had a play to appear in, with a group of student actors, at The Space. After that came the co-launch of Sally Rodwell’s book (Gonne Strange Charity), then mine. A bunch of strangers stared at me strangely as I read out passages from the Kabbalah mixed with vatic prose. We didn’t sell many.
By now, Alan was definitely running on empty. His state might be described as one of generalised euphoria. I, unfortunately, had a train to catch. Luckily one of the actors offered to drive me to the station (she was writing a Ph.D. on the connections between Paradise Lost and Philip Pullman’s anti-God children’s trilogy; I’ve often wondered how she’s getting on with that).
Do I have to spell it out? This was a kind, considerate, over-committed man. Reading, play and launch in one day was (at least!) one thing too many. It didn’t seem to phase him.
It’s just like Confucius says in the Analects
Love starts out simple & ends complex– AB
It’s nice when one can be wholeheartedly and unreservedly enthusiastic. We spend so much time parroting polite expressions that it’s often difficult to believe that someone really does like something.
Alan’s reading in the “Bad Language” series at the Auckland Art Gallery was a revelation to me. It went on for an hour, and took the form of a debate about love, incorporating bits and pieces from all sorts of poems (mainly from Ecstasy). At the end he walked down into the audience and handed a girl a poem, together with a request for her phone number. Point taken. A hard thing to carry off, certainly, but one would have had to be a bit of a churl to object.
I’d heard he was a spellbinding performer, but this was my first experience of it. No tricks or gimmicks, either. He just read well – it was the material that spoke.
Everything we see is God– AB
We met at another café, this time in Jervois Road. He came with John Barnett and Lesley Kaiser, whom I’d never met, but whose work I was familiar with from brief.
I’d been very struck by the warmth with which he’d greeted me at the reading the night before. There are a lot of things to think about, a lot of commitments, a lot of meeting and greeting to do on such occasions. Once again, I was impressed by his ability to seem genuine in the midst of so much sham.
The conversation was a little muted. He was tired. We talked about James K. Baxter (at Alan’s suggestion, I’d taken a detour up the Whanganui river to visit “the grave” on my way back from Wellington after the launch).
As he left I asked him if he’d be interested in publishing another book. “Why not?” he replied. “Send it down.”
It took a little longer than I thought. I finished working on it late last month, June 2002, a few days before hearing the news of his death in Amsterdam.
A couple of extracts from letters to end up with:
Your note about the Serbo-Croat website [Jim Norcliffe had sent me the address of a site which seemed to mention the names of various NZ poets] is the sort of thing we need. We're big in Belgrade! And that your book will be ready too ... product, product, product (a TV series?). Actually, most overseas sales are to Vancouver – there seems to be a little Bumpo Groupo there.
[one of the last things he wrote me – in response to an email from India]:
Hope all is well with wandering around in your dhoti ... I see where Tagore has come off copyright and all the Indians are singing his songs out in the open; doing the Baxter homage as well?
Stone Pine Lavender
for Alan Brunton
Journey to discover the unknown self
– Nissan tyre cover
Part way through your personal
labyrinthshe was on
a different levelsaid the Maori
to turn upriver
last night at the party
my stricken darlingcooed
the crew-cut girl
who drove you
to the station
walk round Hiruharama
hum of beesbell-bird
a van with muffled mirrors
till you’re struck by
not peacenonot exactly
something more like waste
straight aheadup through
the bush supplies a skidding
kidyou’ve come some way
to see this
music raps nearby
At the Grave of James K. Baxter
s such a cliché
standing at the spot
where so much
a trifle unkind perhaps?
no doubtbut nothing
seems to happen either
wherever he is
words of a dead man
in the guts of the living?
Stone Pine Lavender
a sign said miles ago
gathers up clothes
you fail to wave
New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre [Available at: http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/brunton/recollections/ross.asp (6/12/02)]