What drew you to writing in the first place?
As a young person I enjoyed reading, I was educated in New Zealand and through that education it lead me to wanting to write, and so I followed that path. I listened to a lot of popular music, especially those writers who seemed to be able to write a kind of poetry with their lyrics.
There was also a sense of internationalism about popular culture which went against the kind of narrow nationalist view you were being taught at school, and that influenced me as well.
I was in punk rock bands at school and I was the singer and the lyricist and I remember being drawn to social commentary, and when all those influences were combined I just stuck with it and kept writing. And I really did enjoy doing that; I enjoyed writing which challenged conventions, I was drawn to oppositional writing in a sense that a lot of what I was doing went against the grain.
I think part of that comes from being introduced to the great writers at school and feeling incredibly detached from them and their lives. You end up starting to look for, to search out, writers who are not on the curriculum at school. You were trying to break down the monolithic culture, the Presbyterian, Calvinist slab of culture that you were being exposed to.
I think there was a sense that there was this monolithic culture and that there was very little of worth outside of that. You can see it in some ways when New Zealanders travelled abroad to see if they could connect with popular culture elsewhere. They often went to London, because there was a sense of connection to British culture. And it really is only recently that we have moved towards a more confident approach to expressing our own sense of ourselves. That is one of the reasons why I have stayed in New Zealand and have kept analysing and researching what is happening here.
Have things come full circle regarding your life as a writer and poet given that you are now the National Poet Laureate?
When I began, New Zealand was still very much under the influence of British culture, and the impact of the British Empire generally, and when David Lange became Prime Minister and was arguing about making New Zealand Nuclear Free and positions like that, we started to make some breaks with that kind of loyal, colonial settler, orientation.
I think I was obsessed with New Zealand exceptionalism and in many ways New Zealand arrives at attitudes towards current events a little later than other places and that means we might develop a different approach to issues because we can see where other places have gone. We tend towards seeing ourselves as picking up things which have gone wrong elsewhere and then we don’t go down these paths.
Today while New Zealand, I’m talking generally here, tends to respond to overseas events, I do think more and more we are making our own way, and therefore while I have always written about New Zealand and the surrounding islands from my particular perspective, I do keep my ear to the ground regarding what is happening in cultural circles now.
There are different ways to look at the flow of history, and the changes that make their way to the surface. In some ways it can look quite as if there was a clear path of development when in reality events were much more chaotic.
For me I find language, writing and particularly poetry, very useful to elaborate on subtleties and nuances regarding events which can allow ideas to reverberate over time. That is what I love about poetry. It is an art form which can allow you the freedom to say things which might not always appear particularly clear but it still resonates with people.
The anarchy, or the anarchic impulse, of a poem, captures the truth from different angles, and whatever happens regarding my approval or otherwise as a poet, I am the New Zealand Poet Laureate now, regardless I will maintain my commitment to writing poetry as my means of expressing issues as I see them.
You have gone from being an outsider regarding the mainstream poetry establishment to being the National Laureate. How does that happen?
You probably need to understand the history of the New Zealand Poet Laureate. It was started in the 1990’s and there have been 12 Poet laureates and 11 of them are still alive. We will all be meeting up in September to celebrate what has almost become a fellowship of the Laureates.
It comes from that New Zealand ethos where we allow voices to be heard and we sort of share things around. There is also an element of transparency about the process which is hard wired into the New Zealand political consciousness. I tend to think that is how we do politics here.
I think that has been influenced by the Maori culture and the questions which arise from that situation; how do we accommodate Maori culture, how do we justify what happened through colonial settlement, and how do we aim or work towards getting along together, and all of these things continually clash and New Zealand has to find a way of dealing with those pressures.
For me I am not really interested in the romantic idea or the confessional mode of a poet, I’m more interested in looking at our culture, our people or peoples, our situations; and that is what I am interested in writing about.
You have argued in the past that poets should fight against writing formulaic poetry?
The great buzzword now is diversity and the sense of being allowed to hear a diverse range of voices. That is what we have in New Zealand now, but the thoughts I had, or expressed, perhaps on a television interview 30 years ago, would have been coming from someone who was very much on the outer of the poetic establishment.
There were a few people then in the establishment who thought what I was trying to do was important and they would give me encouragement, despite me saying things which might have come across as problematic.
I think I was a product of my environment, I had a particular type of education, I was heavily influenced by popular music, I liked lyrics and music which questioned the status quo, but particularly in a way which generated thought and I wanted to do something similar with my poetry when I started out. I do think though that there has been a significant change particularly with the rise of the internet.
Recently there has been a campaign to save books from the National Library; the library is looking to get rid of a lot of books that it no longer requires, basically books that are not specifically about New Zealand. There is a rear guard effort to try and save those books. But there is a problem with this. The reality is that people don’t read or access information in the same way that they used to. If anything the cultural shift has been that now everyone writes or is aiming to find a way to get their opinions into the ether.
It really wasn’t quite like that when I started out, there was a feeling of being barbarians at the gate. I don’t think it is quite like that now so the arguments I was making then might not be exactly what I would argue now.
Part two of this interview is here