Jack Ross, ed.: brief 26 (February 2003)
Life with Kendrick:
A Conversation with Margaret Edgcumbe
Kendrick Smithyman married Margaret Edgcumbe in 1981, after the death of his first wife, the poet Mary Stanley. She spoke to me about him on December 8th, 2002, at the Northcote house they shared together.
How did you first meet Kendrick?
It was while I was doing English Honours (this was the first time I set eyes on him, you understand, rather than the first time I met him). He came into the Honours Room to fetch a book, as it then doubled as the library. Somebody said, “I’m warned that you’ve decided to write a play about one of the boys that you used to teach,” and he said, “Yes, it’s going to be about a twelve-year-old who was blackmailing people about homosexual sex,” or something of that sort, and added as a parting shot, “Don’t poke borax – there are perversions I haven’t touched on yet!” So that was my first image of Kendrick: small man delivering devastating line as he left.
Then of course he was around the university a lot, and there was an Honours party for Shakespeare’s birthday, and he came along with all the usual suspects. After that, it wasn’t until I was applying for the tutor’s job in the English Department in 1967 that I saw him again. Much later on, when we were married, he said that I’d been showing far too much leg (those were the days of miniskirts) …
He ran the first enrolment I ever took part in; but the next year he was away, and I had to run it, and I’m afraid I took it out of his hands and never let him have it back. He wasn’t all that pleased by that. He wasn’t going to run it himself, but he was damned if he was going to let me feel that I was doing the right thing!
What was it like working with him?
Oh, it was fine. He didn’t give advice or tell you what to do, which of course under the present regime is what senior tutors are supposed to do, but Kendrick was never that sort of figure.
We had a lot of interests in common. I am a sucker for a story, you see. I could listen to his stories for hours and hours and hours, and we were across the corridor from each other in Wynyard Street, so … I think he was researching the Jacky Marmon stuff at that point, and I was interested in anything that anyone was prepared to tell me about – most of the time.
Did you know much about Northland history then?
Of course I knew that I had roots in Northland, but I didn’t have much information about it. My great-great grandfather was a missionary called Robert Burrows. He came out in 1840 and was stationed at Waimate at the time of the uprising or war or whatever you want to call it. That’s why there is a Russell poem and a Waimate poem in one of the books , which you will doubtless have seen.
What was it like going on holiday with him?
The first time that we went away on holiday together, it was a question of, “Where will we go?” and I said I would rather like to go up north, because I’d heard so much about the Hokianga. This was after we married. I had been up north before, but only to the touristy bits. I’d never been to the Hokianga.
I didn’t like camping. He liked camping, and he camped with Mary and the boys (he had loads and loads of camping gear), but I couldn’t see why two elderly or getting-to-elderly people shouldn’t use motels and do it in reasonable comfort, so we didn’t actually follow the path that he’d taken with Mary around the Hokianga. Actually I don’t think we could have on that first trip, as there’d been one of those disasters they have where the road had been wiped out or was under repair, so we never got round to the other coast and Mitimiti and all that. That would have been in 1982.
And did he drive down every shingle road?
He had a great fondness for metal roads. And of course up there those are the sort of roads you get. He didn’t drive down all of them, but he always knew exactly where he was and where he was going, whereas I was always terrified that the car was going to break down, which it did have a tendency to do on most of his trips.
There was one story about the car having to be towed out by a tractor from the ditch it had fallen into. And there was another time that we set off to go to the East Cape and hadn’t got far down the Southern motorway when a terrible noise arose which turned out to be the radiator cap, and that bugged us, off and on, all the way around the Cape. And the first time that we went in the direction of Taupo, we were in a new car – not brand-new, but a new car to us – and it broke down in Taupo. So he was very prone to having cars turn to custard on him, and I was always terrified that we were going to be down one of these bumpy roads in the middle of nowhere when it happened, but actually we didn’t have too many disasters up north.
My absolute worst journey – I cannot remember which year it was, and I don’t think it gets into any poems – was when we were down south somewhere, and he decided to come back in the middle of winter through the Ureweras instead of taking the more normal road, and, oh, that was eight hours of absolutely terrifying journey, the whole thing.
Would he plot out the whole trip in advance?
Oh yes. There are, as you know, whole envelopes full of maps downstairs. Before each trip he would go to the AA and get a new one, and he had all his old maps in a folder in the car along with the camera (which usually went phut, or didn’t work, or got cooked along the way). He also took bird books, and any historical guides he needed, and so on.
He could remember absolutely blow by blow where he’d been and what we’d seen and everything about it, but I have very little visual memory. I suppose most of the time I was clutching the side of the seat and worrying whether the car was going to hang together. He always knew where he was going.
Did he do all the driving?
He did all the driving. Towards the later part of our marriage I did drive a couple of times going down the main road. I drove on the desert road, but when we got close back towards Taupo he said, “I’m taking over again,” whereas I thought I was getting into my stride.
Did he write every day when you were away on holiday?
He didn’t write on holiday at all. The only autograph things which survive are various fragments which he started off in England. Otherwise I don’t think he did. If he did make notes he destroyed them. It was all in his head. As I say, he could drive down the Great South Road to Palmerston and remember every inch, and be able to say what he saw: people by the side of the road, and horses in paddocks, and houses and so on.
With sequences like that late one “Going North” [in Auto/Biographies (1992)], I think he wrote them once he got back. He did write poems in his head. Every now and then when he came up from his study down below he might make a note in the kitchen of something: a line or a word or something. And then he spent a lot of the night awake. He had difficulty sleeping. But I don’t think he wrote things down in the middle of the night.
Did he get up?
He read murders.
Did he have a particular writing routine, times that were set aside for work?
He didn’t have specific writing times during the day, no. After he retired, he used to nap in the afternoon, but he spent most of his time down in the basement writing whenever he wanted to. He wasn’t just writing poetry, of course. He edited books, wrote academic papers, did research, and so on. My impression was that editing was done in the morning and composing in the afternoon. I did notice that the poems were usually finished by five o’clock, when he started the cooking.
We shared the cooking. I would do it one night and he would do it the next, though he usually ended up doing the lunches because otherwise he wouldn’t have got fed properly – mainly what he called resurrection pudding, which was leftovers. He was very good at it, actually. Much better than I was.
Did he talk to you about what he was working on?
Well look, Jack, I wasn’t really much good to him in that connection. He would read me what he had written. Sometimes he would try to do it at inauspicious moments like when I was trying to do the cooking. I would also read it when I was downstairs because it was usually on his desk, but I think stuff got written which he didn’t talk to me about. I was surprised to discover that all those family poems [Imperial Vistas Family Fictions] are dated from the mid 1980s, because I don’t remember him showing them to me till much later on. And I didn’t really see very much of Atua Wera at all.
I think he may have given it up as a bad job after a while. He would say, “If you had read my poems you would know that I had written a poem on such and such.”
Would he look faraway from time to time, as if he was composing something?
Whenever he was in earshot he was usually talking or telling you something. There was nothing of demanding silence from people. I was possibly a bit insensitive, because when I did the housework I usually liked to play the radio, since I think I’ve got as much right as him to have my pain covered up, but the noise would get under the house. He’d make an objection to it every now and then, but not all the time. Maybe that was because I was so set on it.
I think that most of his poems sprung with feathers and helmet from his head onto the page. And actually they tended to cut themselves off at the bottom of a page. I don’t think he got stuck in between. There’s very little sign of editing. There are several starts sometimes – particularly early on – and then the poem will get changed in a second draft, or go beyond that into two or three drafts, but towards the end I don’t think he did get stuck.
All this is post-1980, of course. In the forties and fifties he was preoccupied with counting syllables and arranging stanza patterns, which must have taken a lot of time and trouble.
So he wouldn’t necessarily make a handwritten draft before typing it out?
He used to tell his creative writing class that they must learn to type, and produce at the typewriter, and that’s what he did. He would compose at the typewriter. It was quite a noisy typewriter. You could hear it from upstairs. Keith Sinclair got onto computers, and Bruce Biggs used them, but Kendrick never did.
Was there a big change after he retired in the amount of writing work he was able to do?
A lot of the work he did after he retired wasn’t new work, but looking back on old stuff and revising it, but he did fit in an immense amount on his various history projects (including a very, very long article proving that the chief who got the nail from Captain Cook couldn’t possibly have been telling the truth or was sadly mistaken, which the history journals decided they couldn’t possibly publish …)
Did you know about the Collected Poems before he died?
I did know that he had this archive downstairs which he was always reshuffling, but I wasn’t aware that he’d practically been compiling his collected poems since he first took up his pen (or typewriter), and yet this had clearly been in his mind all along. Every draft had to be kept and put in somewhere.
How do you find the job of being his literary executor?
I don’t think I do anything, really. All I do is smile graciously and let other people do the work. I did make a decision that I wasn’t going to be a difficult literary widow, but I haven’t had anything to be difficult about, really. He had left the books that were unpublished in the form in which he wanted them published. I did do a rough index of the letters and the Collected Poems before I handed them over to the University Library. The only thing I have to do every now and then is give permission for things to be published.
I have learnt one thing, though: a good literary executor will always look through everything, and not let things leave the house otherwise!
And are all of his anecdotes really recorded somewhere in the archive?
I was probably being a bit hyperbolic when I told you that, but that was the impression I got when I went through and did that index of the first lines of the poems and all the drafts for the library.
There seems to have been only the one period of drying up, a gap while he was writing A Way of Saying. But I mean, who knows? He was very prone to destroying stuff. I don’t know if he destroyed any of his own poems but certainly there are some very weird blanks of things that you think should be there but which you find aren’t any longer. Things which he’d obviously got rid of: a lot of letters. He must have had Here & Now, the magazine, but that’s not there now.
I can’t think of any other specific examples of stuff that he’s got rid of, but there are cases where he’s definitely destroyed letters – the early ones to Mary, for instance. When he was dying I rang him up one day from the university and he told me that that was what he had been doing. He said they were full of doodles and drawings, and things which had no meaning for anyone else.
Was he a heavy drinker, like some other North Shore writers?
Basically he drank white wine, Chateau Cardboard. He could drink it all day from eleven o’clock onwards if he had a visitor, but it didn’t affect him, and he reckoned that was because there was so much water in the mix.
As for the cardboard, I don’t think that he had very much of a palate. I can think of lots of embarrassing situations we were in where Kendrick produced a cheap wine for connoisseurs. I don’t think he cared. He didn’t keep beer or spirits in the house.
I’m sure that an enormous amount of liquor got consumed at various times earlier on. He used to go to the Lowry parties, after all. I remember a lovely story about James K Baxter at Nile Road [Milford, where Kendrick lived with Mary Stanley]. James K said, “Of course I’m an alcoholic,” and Kendrick said, “Look, Jim, don’t give us that. You’re not an alcoholic. You haven’t got the temperament.” And James K said, “You know, I think you’re right,” and poured a whole bottle of whisky down the sink, much to Kendrick’s horror!
Which parts of his work do you like best?
Well, certainly the post-1980 ones, and I think the Northland poems are often quite brilliant. I think Atua Wera is extraordinary.
It will never be popular, though. The problem is that there’s so much of it. If there could only be a simple Smithyman or a Smithyman primer.
What would you like to see happen with his work in the future?
I am still hoping that there will be a scholar who will be able to come to grips with the Smithyman oeuvre one of these days, someone who will be able to say what were the influences on what he was trying to do, especially in the early poems.
So far as I know there has been only one doctoral thesis attempted on him so far. The thing Heather McCann and I agreed on was the strong influence of the seventeenth century: it was as if he was trying to be Shakespeare or Jonson.
Was he happy, do you think?
People have told me that he seemed happy. There’s a review of one of the books by Peter Bland where he says “These are the poems of a happy man, a man of many enthusiasms.” When we next met, I said to him, “You said that he was a happy man! That’s not the way he comes over at home.” “Oh,” said Peter, “I think he’s happy.”
He had his enthusiasms and I had my enthusiasms. We certainly had our rows, but …
brief 26 (2003): 103-9.
[Available at: nzepc features: Smithymania (2003)]
brief 26 (2003)