What is Auckland Poetry? (2002)

Five Bells vol 9 (3) (September 2002)

What is Auckland Poetry?

Auckland is a rare gem. I thought I should get that straight right from the start. It’s a gem with a rather squalid setting, admittedly (industrial areas, traffic jams, urban crime and grime), but the archer’s bow of the Bridge, the mad insect-sting of the Skytower, the wild West Coast beaches, the tranquillity of the East Coast bays surely make up for any shortcomings in the city itself, nestled between its two harbours. “Wasp-waisted isthmus,” I called it once in a poem (try repeating that three times quickly when you’ve had too much to drink!) I love it. I’m from here.

Poets abound. They always have. Talking of the West Coast, there’s the abiding presence of Allen Curnow at Karekare, but we’ve also had Kendrick Smithyman in Northcote, R. A. K. Mason in Mairangi Bay, A. R. D. Fairburn in Devonport …

I should begin by itemising the major literary magazines (they are, after all, the most effective barometer of change). The most eminent, and longest-running, is of course Poetry New Zealand, run with unflagging energy by Alistair Paterson of Avondale. Printout is now, alas, defunct, but brief (formerly A Brief Description of the Whole World), probably the foremost avant-garde journal in the country, was until recently housed in John Geraets’s flat at the top of Myers Park. It’s now shifted to my bach in Mairangi Bay. Spin, a more “journeyman” poetry journal (as the American reviewers persist in calling it) has three of its four editors based in Auckland. The e-zine Trout is run from Auckland University Library by Robert Sullivan and his colleagues Brian Flaherty and Tony Murrow.

Amongst publishers, Auckland University Press is the most prestigious. It’s run by Elizabeth Caffin (ably seconded by the energetic Christine O’Brien), and continues to publish many of our best-known poets: Janet Charman, Murray Edmond, Michele Leggott, Alan Loney, and C. K. Stead among them. They also produce the AUP New Poets series, and sponsor Leggott and Flaherty’s New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre site. There aren’t any other major poetry publishers here now that Penguin and OUP have thrown in the towel, except for some small basement presses: Antediluvian Press, Bookcaster Press, Perdrix Press, Pohutukawa Press among them.

Finally there are the live poetry venues. I’m afraid that I’ve lost count of all the various watering-holes which have hosted Poetry Live’s weekly readings over the years: The Gluepot, the Globe, the Albion, the Alleluya café … Now it’s every Tuesday night at the Departure Lounge in Karangahape Road. There’s also the Temple in Queen Street with its occasional “Passionate Tongues” readings, and “Vocal Point” readings at the Depot in Devonport. Out West there are readings in Henderson and Titirangi.

We meet also at the Society of Authors, at book-launches, and the numerous one-off readings for charity (or profit). Until recently there were readings every month in Borders, as well as every weekend at The Live Poets’ Café. Not to mention the complex net of writers’ groups which spans the whole city (Devonport, Grey Lynn and Titirangi being particular hotspots).

Auckland, even when I am well stoned
on a tab of LSD or on Indian grass
You still look to me like an elephant’s arsehole
Surrounded with blue-black haemorrhoids

I suspect James K. Baxter must have been coming down from a high when he wrote that “Ode to Auckland.” Honestly, Jim, lighten up! He went on to add: “I would take a trip to another town / Except that the other towns resemble you exactly.”

Personally, as far as evocations of the city go, I prefer Kendrick Smithyman’s “About Setting a Jar on a Hill,” his description of two yachts spotted while going to work over the bridge (this is, after all, the “city of sails”):
They were ballet. They were sculpture.
Most, they were poems …
Should I bellow from the flyover, “Behold
Tennessee which you think is Victoria
Park,” because I have seen rarely?

For that matter, fierce old Ron Mason claimed to have seen the Roman general Marius
for many hours by Waitemata’s tide

Burnt Dian’s temple down in Otahuhu
and slain Herostratus at Papatoe
and here in Penrose brought Aeneas through
to calm Ausonian lands from bloody Troy

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that the average Aucklander could care less about poetry. It’s a coterie interest here (as elsewhere), but the sheer number of people who write it and take an interest in it can be quite surprising at times.

Something of all this crystallised, for me, at Riemke Ensing’s Poetry marathon at the Auckland University Music School on the 23rd of May this year (a charity event for Amnesty International). Everybody seemed to be there (reading or listening): the usual strong contingent from the university, Judy McNeil of Poetry Live, Michael Rudd from the Depot, poets from the Internet (Jill Chan), the newspapers (Iain Sharp), the magazines (Alistair Paterson), young and old, big and small, men and women. If it can field 26 poets and still have as many more waiting in the wings with equally strong claims for inclusion, Auckland poetry must be in pretty good shape.


Five Bells (Australia) vol 9 (3) (2002): 14-15.

[1037 wds]

Five Bells 9 (3) (Winter 2002)

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