An Interview with Robert Sullivan (2015)

Jack Ross, ed.: Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 [Issue #50] (November 2015)

An Interview with Robert Sullivan
[audio recording – 6 September, 2015]

Puna Wai Kōrero (2014)

Robert Sullivan

heads the School of Creative Writing at Manukau Institute of Technology. Before that, he was Associate Professor of English at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. He has published seven books of poetry to date, as well as two graphic novels. He also wrote the libretto for the oratorio Orpheus in Rarohenga by composer John Psathas, and has edited and co-edited a number of anthologies and special issues of Academic Journals. He recently completed a Ph.D. at the University of Auckland.

Select Bibliography:


  • Jazz Waiata. Auckland: AUP, 1990.
  • Piki Ake! Poems 1990-1992. Auckland: AUP, 1993.
  • Star Waka. Auckland: AUP, 2000.
  • Captain Cook in the Underworld. Auckland: AUP, 2003.
  • Voice Carried my Family. Auckland: AUP, 2005.
  • Cassino City of Martyrs / Città Martire. Wellington: Huia, 2010.
  • Shout Ha! to the Sky. UK: Salt, 2010.

  • Fiction:

  • Maui: Legends of the Outcast. Illustrated by Chris Slane. Godwit Press. Auckland: Random House NZ, 1996.
  • Weaving Earth and Sky: Myths and Legends of Aotearoa. Illustrated by Gavin Bishop. Godwit Press. Auckland: Random House NZ, 2002.

  • Edited:

  • [with Brian Flaherty, Tony Murrow and Anne Kennedy]. Trout: Online Journal of Arts & Literature from Aotearoa/New Zealand & the Pacific Islands [] (1997- ).
  • [with Reina Whaitiri]. Homeland: New Writing from America, the Pacific and Asia. Special issue of the journal Manoa, vol. 9, no. 1. Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.
  • Proceedings: International Indigenous Librarians’ Forum. Auckland: Te Ropu Whakahau, 2001.
  • [with Albert Wendt and Reina Whaitiri]. Whetu Moana: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.
  • [with Anne Kennedy]. Best New Zealand Poems 2006. Wellington: IIML, 2006.
  • [with Albert Wendt and Reina Whaitiri]. Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English – Whetu Moana II. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010.
  • [with Reina Whaitiri]. Puna Wai Kōrero: An Anthology of Māori Poetry in English. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2014.

  • Secondary Sources:

  • “Authors: Robert Sullivan.” NZEPC: New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre [].
  • Marsden, Peter H. From waka to whakapapa, Or: Carving your own canoe. The verse of Robert Sullivan.” NZEPC [].
  • Marsh, Selina Tusitala. “Pasifika Poetry: Video-Interview with Robert Sullivan.” NZEPC [].
  • Prentice, Chris. “‘A knife through time’: Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka and the Politics and Poetics of Cultural Difference.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 37, no.2-3 (2006): 111-35. [].
  • “Robert Sullivan (poet).” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia [].
  • “Sullivan, Robert.” New Zealand Book Council / Te Kaunihera Pukapuka o Aotearoa [].
  • Sullivan, Robert. “Discussion of ‘Varua Tupu’.” In 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry, by Paula Green and Harry Ricketts. A Vintage Book. Auckland: Random House NZ, 2010. Pp. 462-64.

Robert Sullivan
photograph: Bronwyn Lloyd

  • Alistair Paterson told me he awarded you first prize in a nationwide secondary school poetry competition in the 1970s.

  • Yeah, it was a long time ago, and Alistair’s very fond of saying to me that he discovered me. I think I’d already been accepted by Landfall back then. But those young writer’s prizes, they really encourage the young voice, and I don’t think I would have been as confident about putting my stuff out there if I hadn’t had that boost early on, so thanks Alistair!

  • So were you already sending out poems to magazines when you were at school?

  • No, I just sat on my work. Actually most of my work went into writing letters. I had this penfriend, Dermot Delany, in Dublin, and we’d write all these rather intense things that teenagers talk about. It was good fun. Now I think that constant penmanship did help with my writing, funnily enough. I didn’t really come from a very bookish household.

  • When did you start thinking of yourself as a poet, as opposed to just somebody who wrote poems as well as other things?

  • I was never very confident, except that I had this primary school teacher, Mrs. Ngaea, and she had our class do an exercise about writing what we saw in the sky. So we all sat outside in a group on the grass, and I talked about being a boy hunting an alligator lying in the grass. And she made such a big song and dance about it that I really felt that I was a poet, from the age of ten. I was absolutely certain.

    That was really my big Ah-ha moment, but then of course I didn’t have the talent to back that up. It wasn’t until I got to uni, my first year at uni, that it really started happening for me. I just started knocking on people’s doors in the English Department. I was actually only eighteen, but I was quite serious. So I knocked on Albert Wendt’s door, because he had a visiting professorship that year. And Michele Leggott’s, and Alex Calder’s – anyone who’d see me, basically. I knocked on Ranginui Walker’s door in Māori studies.

    For quite a shy young man I had a purpose. I wanted to get the best information, I was quite driven. I was obsessed – I like to think it was the way Ezra Pound was obsessed. You can see it in his essays. That’s one of the books that Alex Calder told me to read, the Selected Essays. I still rely on it a lot.

  • I’ve been reading some of the new poems that you’ve sent me, and it struck me that those, as well as a lot of your other poems I’ve read, are based on genealogy and whakapapa. Is that a matter of personal choice, or do you see that as an essential part of your job as a poet?

  • I guess it’s part of the tale of the tribe – coming from a collective background, even though I’m now in a terribly nuclear set-up. I’m a Westerner. I don’t live in my Mum’s village. And yet, that’s where most of my thoughts go to and these ones I’ve just sent you, Jack, they’re my Dad’s side.

    It’s Father’s Day today. My father’s been quite ill. He’s in a rest home. So it’s got me thinking about the Pākehā side of my family a lot more: the Conlons, which is my Dad’s surname. I guess I’ve always drawn on the idea of being Irish. I haven’t actually paid attention to the detail of being Irish in New Zealand.

    My wife, Anne Kennedy, she’s always been completely Irish, one hundred percent Irish, and she really draws on that in her work. And I’ve really just made some little gestures, like the odd reference to Yeats and Heaney.

  • But you call yourself Irish in your bio-notes.

  • Yeah, Galway Irish. I think I offended an Irishman, actually, overseas, while I was in the States. I put up a little poster and it said “Galway Irish” and I could have got away with that at home. I didn’t quite understand; I still don’t understand.

  • That you were making a claim that he thought you had no right to?

  • Yeah. I’ve been to Galway Bay, and I’ve been to Roscommon, where my grandfather’s from.

  • There are poems about Ireland in Voice Carried My Family, but I guess fewer poems from that side than from the other side. That’s an equally important part of who you are?

  • I think what it does … it’s a bit like being a poet, you get to carry a licence and wave it around to spout forth on all sorts of topics with no expertise. I’m not into phoney wisdom, but that side of me, it’s still a mystery. It’s not as deep, I guess, because I’m in the homeland of my Mum’s people. I’m not even in my Dad’s Māori homeland, because he’s part Māori. He’s from the South Island. I just don’t know enough about that side of the family, about his Māori roots.

  • That diaspora, that feeling of exile you get from Colonialism, is a problem for a lot of writers in the British post-colonial countries: Canada, Australia, New Zealand …

  • Yes, I read a book called Zong, by Glenys Phillips, and it’s a kind of slave narrative, about a ship full of slave women, on their way to the Caribbean, which I guess was a staging post for the slave trade then. In storms, they’d just toss them overboard, and that book really consists of the sound of them sighing. There’ll be long stretches made up of the letters S O. Sometimes S O S. Sometimes O S. It’s dotted all around the pages, and sometimes that diasporic, that post-colonial experience just isn’t utterable in ordinary language and so the S O or the S O S is perhaps all you can say that’s sensible: sensibly.

  • I’ve been looking at the recent anthology of Māori Poetry in English you co-edited with Reina Whaitiri. In the introduction you say “the major criteria for inclusion in Puna Wai Kōrero was declaring tribal affiliation/s.” That seemed a really interesting sentence to me, and I thought you might like to enlarge on what you meant by that.

  • Now, hearing it read back to me, I think really the main thing is declaring that you’re Māori. If a writer in some way expressed that they were Māori, we would have included them. It does sound as if having a tribal affiliation is another layer, but really we were just looking for a sense of identity as being a Māori writer. I’m aware of other writers who have Māori whakapapa who don’t actually acknowledge it, or who aren’t confident enough to assert that identity. So they don’t. They’re quite prominent writers, so I guess that filter also brings out a sense of being Māori as an identity within the poetry. Whether it’s voiced or unvoiced, it will always be there to some extent. So that is a bias of the collection, I suppose.

  • It’s often said that a large number of contemporary Māori no longer have a tribal affiliation, or no longer know their affiliation. So, in effect, they would almost have to research their genealogy in order to qualify?

  • Yes. Though it never cropped up as an issue so far as I could tell. We put the call out through our networks: like Toi Māori Aotearoa. It’s possible that someone might have missed out on a call because they felt they weren’t affiliated with an iwi, but I don’t think that actually occurred. Theoretically it could have done, I suppose.

  • For me that ties in with something I heard you say last year at a conference in Wellington. You gave a keynote speech, and afterwards one of the Australian delegates asked you to explain the “Parihaka story” (for want of a better term), and you replied that it wasn’t your story to tell, because your affiliations are with Northland, and it’s a Taranaki story which you didn’t feel confident to expound. Is that a reasonably accurate account of what you said?

  • I think so. I’ve always had this funny feeling – it’s a feeling, rather than a theory – about the need to represent one’s own stories. Like I have my own family story, my own ancestors. There’s been a significant book of poetry, Atua Wera, by Kendrick Smithyman. That whole book is about one of my ancestors, and I felt quite perplexed. Because I loved Kendrick, but I also felt quite conflicted, as if someone had reached into my family album and decided to tell that story before I could. So I try to practice what I preach in that regard.

  • And yet, if one were to continue that argument, it’s a fact that you contributed a poem to the 2001 exhibition catalogue Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance. That’s different from telling the story?

  • Yeah, there I just relied on public accounts, historical accounts, whereas I felt that, because – as you know, Kendrick was a fantastic researcher. I used to use the university library back in the days when you had cards in the pockets at the backs of books, and you’d see the signature Kendrick Smithyman on almost all of the cards.

  • I believe there was once a bet in the Auckland University English Department: to win it you had to go into the library and find a book that Kendrick hadn’t taken out.

  • But I actually think that he had some archival material too. Some of the things he was saying in that collection were just too mysterious for words. And it’s a great collection, and it did fire me up for some other work, anyway.

  • Star Waka was your response to it, to Atua Wera?

  • Yes, it was.

  • Star Waka is a very personal collection. It’s speculative at times, but it’s always based in your life, your connections. So it was the kind of poetry it was that was your response to Atua Wera?

  • I liked the structure of Atua Wera, the numbering sequence, it got me thinking how to reproduce something like that in Star Waka. You know, the astronomy, the mathematics, the sequencing in that book owes something to Atua Wera, actually: the very clever way Kendrick would dip between different numbered sequences, shift it around temporally. So that’s what I tried to do in Star Waka. I borrowed that technique. That’s the main connection, actually, and then me feeling fired up to tell my story. There are lots of influences on that poetry.

  • I share very strongly your sense that certain stories belong to you to tell, and certain others don’t. I’m always quite surprised that some writers don’t feel any embarrassment or difficulty in telling stories which it seems to me aren’t theirs to tell. For instance, if I were to write a poem about a slave ship going from Liverpool to the West Indies, I could couch it as an historical narrative maybe, but I don’t really feel that it’s my story to tell unless I had a relative who was a slave captain. Then it could become my story: my shame to expiate.

  • Yeah, when I was younger I used to think if you’re not Māori you shouldn’t be using Māori terms because you don’t understand the significance, but I’ve changed my mind about that. I think it’s better to promote the use of the language. But bringing it into poetry – well, readers of poetry can be quite pernickety. They’ll look it up, and they’ll actually deepen an understanding of Māori poetics.

    We just had a High School competition, and this wonderful young poet, Emily Fan, she just won first prize, and she’d studied Māori, and she’s not Māori, but she used this term me te wai korari, and I had to look it up, and it’s about the sweetness of the flax flower, the nectar inside it, and I thought “what a strong image”.

    Because her poem is about the flattery of a too brief relationship – a suitor was flattering this young woman – her name was Hinemoa, in her poem, and you could see all of that just in that little flax flower image coming from the Māori, and flax is actually a symbol for the family in Māori poetics, and also the song of the bellbird is in a famous proverb to do with flax, so I could see lots and lots of things just in that me te wai korari term in an English-language poem by a non-Māori poet. These things are just beginning.

  • And yet, there is a kind of clichéd use of Māori which surely isn’t that, isn’t based on a close study of the language or deep knowledge of Māori tradition.

  • Yeah, I actually don’t go out of my way to read that material. I don’t really know about that. You mean like in Kowhai Gold, that anthology?

  • Yeah, as far back as that, but also as far forward as, say, James K. Baxter, though of course you could argue that he did have quite a strong knowledge of Māori protocol and language. Nevertheless, he did seem to think that it was more or less his job to be the spokesperson.

  • Yeah, funnily enough. But I was too young when Baxter died. I was a toddler, so I really don’t know enough about his kind of person. He had a Māori family. His wife was a prominent Māori writer, J. C. Sturm. I always wondered about that with Jacquie, though. Perhaps he did get in the way of her writing.

  • I guess the reason I’m interested in pursuing this idea is just because I wonder if we’ve reached a point where European, or European-descended poets have to learn to back off certain subjects? perhaps what we need is more Māori writers writing about New Zealand than European writers trying to imagine the Māori experience of New Zealand.

  • Yes, we’re in an interesting time because Patricia Grace and Witi Ihimaera are still flourishing. And in the States you’ve still got Native American writers like Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, he’s a younger one, and N. Scott Momaday. I don’t want to talk out of turn. But, you know, it’s still very selective in the States. Sherman Alexie would be about it. There’s Joy Harjo, in poetry, as well, so there’s some other voices, but Sherman Alexie seems to have had the consecration. He’s acceptable. Even though he writes about rather crazy things, rather desperately crazy things.

  • Yes, and he deliberately writes in a kind of pop culture context and he’s done films as well, very successfully.

  • Whereas here, Alan Duff’s a bit younger than Witi and Patricia, but we haven’t had … there are a number of novelists, and poets.

  • But there are complex figures like Taika Waititi.

  • Yeah, he’s great.

  • He is himself, he does his thing, he can’t really be typed, but nevertheless he’s a strongly Māori artist.

  • Yes, he’s a storyteller. I should remember that, too, that film is so important now, yeah, and there are some really big films in Māori and Pasifika as well.

  • I think you also said at one point that the idea of the Puna Wai Kōrero anthology was so there would cease to be three or four Māori poets that everyone could think of, but a lot more?

  • Yes, it’s against that kind of consecrating system: it works everywhere in the world, you know, there’s this system of prizes, and publications and publishers and booksellers, and it all wheels in around itself and it’s self-perpetuating. What it means is that it doesn’t allow other voices to come into that wheel. I’m borrowing this idea from Bourdieu: what he calls “the field of cultural production.” I’ve just finished my PhD. It’s all done, and I’m going to graduate at the end of this month!

  • I gather it was a fairly long process?

  • It was very long, surprisingly long. I should get an Academic book out of it, though, hopefully.

  • Will that be about Māori poetry?

  • It’s actually about Māori and Pasifika poetry, because I’m looking at the Moana as a metaphor for reading the poetics, and using a term like “field of cultural production” leads to more of a sense of that production, because, you know, it’s not an Aqua Nullius, it’s actually quite a storied ocean that we come from. The ocean is more like a highway than a barrier to cultures, so I just felt that using the rhythm of the tides to read Moana, Pacific, poets’ work seemed quite apt because it’s our conversational rhythm, it seems to come out of the culture more – at least in the English language poetry. The indigenous language poetry is more formal, quite ritualistic. I had a lot of fun, doing lots of close readings.

  • I was going to ask you at some point how you handle the connections between being a teacher, an Academic teacher, and a writer as well. I mean, you must spend an awful lot of time working on other people’s writing as well as working within the Academic system. Is it an uncomfortable fit?

  • When I was a lot younger. But, you know, I’ve always been a fan of Ezra Pound and I always say “make it new” in every creative writing workshop that I run, every single class: and I also believe in his dictum that “only emotion endures.” And it’s really passion that I’m enabling. The passion should already be there, but you’ve got to make sure that it’s got a life, to know how to grow it. Lots of other role models kick in: it’s a bit like coaching. I really do think that being a teacher is very like being a coach. And if you know that the student’s listening, they’ll go far.

    It’s not because of what you say, your own success. I think your students should always be more successful than you if you really want them to flourish. It’s not really about you as a teacher, and your ego, it’s about showing them that the ego isn’t a healthy place to be, about not being too ego-driven. I’m losing myself now in my thread, but I think it’s very important to be a passionate writer, even if you’re being terribly cynical in your poetic or your approach or kaupapa: the themes that you cover. It must fire you up.

    As long as you show them that, and they see it, that’s all they need. You don’t need to tell them what to write or even how to write, because they’ve got their passion, they’ve got the rocket fuel.

  • In Russia they used to have this phrase: “the cult of personality.” It always seemed to me that there’s a sort of cult-of-personality teaching, where people aspire to be gurus, and to build themselves through the admiration of students. Many people see this as almost the ideal of teaching, whereas I tend to agree with you that it’s really the negation of teaching. Unless you at least hope that your students surpass you, you’re not really teaching at all. You have to try to enable what’s already there, to come out.

  • Yes, I think that’s why Bill Manhire is so successful, actually. I don’t know Bill very well, but it appears to me that he parks his ego, or he doesn’t appear to have an ego as a teacher. And he brings it out through the workshop process.

  • Yes, and I think that while people may imitate Bill Manhire, or try to imitate him, I don’t think that’s ever been his aim.

  • I don’t know enough about his former students, but I haven’t really detected anyone who actually captures what he does in his own poetry.

  • No, I think that in a sense the idea of a Manhire school is not so, because even if you could follow his teaching methods, he doesn’t really have any followers in his poetics.

  • He’s a unique voice, yes.

  • What you were saying before about the field of cultural production, and the star system: the writer as brand, if you like, is also true of Academia. Yet you too could be said to be the beneficiary of that. After all, you are constructing a poetic career.

  • Yeah, I’ve been a poet since I was quite young – a serious poet since I was 18.

  • And you now have a considerable body of work.

  • Yeah, I’ve slowed down actually, partially because of the PhD, but I used to have this rule of thumb, I’d bring a book out every three years. I thought three years is enough time to let things gel. But just my own books: it’s been five years since my last book. I bought two books out in 2010, so I’m allowing myself something there.

  • That career as a whole, obviously you can’t foresee the end of it, but do you feel that you’ve gone places you wouldn’t have foreseen in your early writing?

  • Oh, God, yeah. When I first started writing poetry, I was just writing in my bedroom. I must say that apart from – well, I had a poster of Brooke Shields, but I’d also made up a poster of one of Bill Manhire’s poems: “An Outline”. I was just obsessed with poetry.

    And I could never have imagined doing the things I’ve done: travelling, and meeting other poets, and, yeah, it’s been a wild buzz actually. I could never have imagined.

    You know, if you’d gone to a career-path High School counsellor and told them that you wanted to be a poet, I don’t think that they would have encouraged that.

  • I suspect not! Sorry to keep harping on about the subject, but another thing you say in the introduction to Puna Wai Kōrero is: “In most previous anthologies of NZ poetry, Māori poets, while there, have been given only cursory acknowledgement.” Why is that?

  • Now another part of my PhD, also borrowed from Bourdieu, is this idea of “habitus” – you know, this idea that a person just focuses on their own world, basically: the world that they come from. So if the editors aren’t Māori they won’t be focusing on Māori poetry, I’m afraid. And if they’re not Pasifika or they’re not Asian New Zealanders, or they’re not women, they’ll tend to see what they want to see. And I think that’s what’s happened in the past with our big anthologies. There hasn’t been a big one very recently: not for poetry. You know Curnow did that 1960 one, the Penguin, there are some Māori poets in there, in Te Reo.

  • And in the 1985 Penguin one, more comprehensively.

  • Yes, that’s better.

  • I don’t think there were any poems in Te Reo in the 1997 Oxford one: the title specifies New Zealand Poetry in English.

  • No, and that was partly the inspiration for this anthology. When Oxford was still here they asked me to put together one, but I sat on it for a long time. And I’m really pleased with the result. We’ve got about sixty Māori poets in this one volume. And actually there are more that I’ve discovered since we published this. I dearly hope that we do get this second chance.

    You know, the story of Māori poetry in English and the story of Pasifika poetry in English is, I think, one that still needs to be told. In the Māori case it’s bounded by being within New Zealand. We’ve got an Australian outlier now, and there’s always been a London one. It’s just as small as we want it to be or as big as we want it to be. I just don’t like the historical belittlement of our literature.

  • English-speaking people have always been resistant to having to learn another language.

  • True.

  • And continue to be. So can you foresee a renaissance of Māori poetry in Māori as well as in English?

  • Oh, it’s always been there. You just have to look at the National Kapa Haka competition, Te Matatini, there’s lots of new compositions in that. They might call it dance, but the lyrics are all poetry. And it’s flourishing. It’s got its own spot on Māori television, and the crowds that they draw …

    It’s not just haka that are being performed, there are waiata, there are love songs, there are tangi. Although I don’t want to wax too eloquent about the health of it. The health of the language itself is at risk. I’ve enough Māori to know that. What bugs me is, you know, that there isn’t bilingual signage everywhere. Because a Māori speaker like me, if I don’t see bilingual signage I forget, quite rapidly, the few Māori terms I’ve got. So any fluency I’ve got just goes out the window.

  • In your anthology you also mention Apirana Ngata’s classic compilation Ngā Mōteatea: the Songs, and while it’s a magnificent book, what fascinates me about it is that while the publication was started in the 1950s, it was only finished ten years ago: with CDs, and complete translations, and all. It’s almost like the national epic of New Zealand. Why did it take so long?

  • You’re right. It is a cultural treasure, and it should have had some serious funding earlier on to make it happen. Although the expertise was hard won. We’ve had some wonderful editors of those volumes, like Pei Te Hurinui Jones, Hirini Moko Reed, Jane McRae …

  • Is that expertise lessening, or is it growing?

  • I think part of the problem is that I come out of an English Studies context and I’m not really an expert on the Māori studies context in that way. I went to a Māori Studies conference, a national and international conference. I didn’t present a paper, I was just there, and actually there were lots of panels on poetry. There was even a Hawaiian session, for instance.

    I think, within that kind of Māori studies context, or Indigenous Studies context, poetry is part of the weave of knowledge. And so that holistic indigenous frame of reference does draw on poetry quite constantly, it’s constantly renewing itself.

    And because I just live in a Western, English-language context I know that I don’t know enough about that. But I do like to think that having collections like Puna Wai Kōrero or Ngā Mōteatea does put fruit on that tree called biculturalism.

    I’m a Northern Māori, though as you know with a bit of South Island Māori in me too, and our people were the first people in the treaty. We were the first signatories, and I like to think that that contributes to a kind of partnership that should flow into all areas of life, and actually poetics is one of those areas.

    It’s a way of thinking that we draw on on the great occasions: life and death and marriage: births, even. And if we don’t, in a few years our poetics, with our tangata whenua kind of conscientising, will be lost, will become a reason to lose our soul. I know that the word “soul” is a dangerous term, but still …

  • So is poetry.

  • Yeah, poetry is a dangerous term. There’s a level of care, not just ideas, but it’s the connection between ideas and the heart which is the poetic space.

  • Are there further things you’d like to put on record here?

  • Oh, Jack, you know you haven’t asked me about my political poetry.

  • Do you want to talk about your political poetry?

  • I don’t know.

  • Well, there’s a quote here from Voice Carried My Family: “We see their racism everywhere / It lives on.”

  • That’s from my poem about the foreshore and seabed controversy, that’s where I got quite political. You know, I was living overseas when that book, Voice Carried My Family, came out, and I was feeling terribly hurt – which is weird, eh – about the foreshore and seabed stuff, and I got very hurt. I think it was because I was reading the Herald Online.

  • Never read the NZ Herald!

  • [Laughs] Well, it just seemed rather one-sided. I was getting quite cross, so I kind of – yeah, I don’t know if my sense of New Zealand and my sense of this place got a bit warped, because I was overseas.

  • But to be too nuanced can be a mistake, as well: sometimes you need a bit of a manifesto …

  • I do think that foreshore and seabed legislation was a big mistake.

  • It was a colossal political error. Though it remains mysterious to this day, because no-one can explain clearly what the previous law was and what the new one meant.

  • Yeah, it was the sense that the rule of law could be changed. That’s why I think we need some kind of supreme court with a bit of teeth. We really thought we had a deal.

  • And that was the Labour Party.

  • And that particular Prime Minister, Helen Clark, which was a real surprise. She was a very good Prime Minister, except in that one area.

  • So do you think of a lot of your poetry as being politically motivated?

  • It’s always conscientised. I’m aware of it. but it popped up then. It was the foreshore and seabed that really hotted things up for me.

  • That’s quite Irish, in a sense, because of the strong political tradition there: Yeats’s “1916”. It was always part of his poetry, but especially after the Easter Rising had occurred.

  • Yeah, that’s right. So I started to look around for other political poetries: there was one about the Peterloo massacre, there was a protest and a massacre in Manchester – was that Shelley?

  • "I met Murder on the way – / He had a mask like Castlereagh."

  • Yes, and of course Swift and Pope. You know I started finding that these people who are quite political; they’re in the canon. Not that I’m into canons, but I started thinking, why can’t I write some political stuff?

  • Of course Pound wrote a lot of political poetry.

  • Let’s not go there. He’s a worry!

  • He’s certainly scared a lot of people off politics!

  • That’s true. I’ve tended to find it mostly in poets before the war, except for the Russians. So, yeah, I think we need to reserve that powerful voice – we’ve let it go for this quieter, more social, polite discourse we tend to have these days. In New Zealand poetry we risk losing that voice.

  • And even in an alleged classless society the poetic voice becomes very middle-class, complacent and privileged: the voice of economic advantage. And while we may have our right to speak, we don’t have the right to be the only ones speaking.

  • No, and there’s a reactionary politics tucked in there.

    I think I’d go further and say that the political dimension also brings in an emotional claim – it constitutes a holistic claim on our attention. I think that’s why people are drawn to biographies even though we know we should be reading the text, that they’re not really about the writer.

  • I used to apologise for reading biographies, but not any more.

  • I read some of Andrew Motion’s poetry and it helped to have read his memoir: quite a lot actually. It really opened an emotional door for me into his poetry, which I don’t think I would have quite got otherwise.

    And when Hone Tuwhare died, and I put together this “in memoriam” special issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora, Michelle Keown’s piece talked about Christopher Caudwell, and how Hone had read Illusion and Reality and that kind of blew my mind. I realised that he’d been reading very high theory quite early on in his poetic career, and he knew Marxist Modernist theory. In there, Caudwell talks about “affective significance”. The idea that folks – just like with Bourdieu’s “habitus” – attach emotions to the objects of everyday reality. And that’s what writers do, they imbue objects with emotion.


Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2 [Issue #50]. ISSN 0114-5770 (2014): 11-12, 23-38.

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Poetry NZ Yearbook 2 (2015)

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