The Monthly interviews New Zealand Poet Laureate David Eggleton – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

There is a period where a number of New Zealand artists, and athletes, cricketers and rugby players, go overseas and do exceptionally well. Did that influence you in any way?

It did in some ways, although if I had to put my finger on it, there was a person called Chris Knox who released records on the Flying Nun record label, he was a bit of an unheralded figure in some ways, but he put out a series of wonderful albums, and I would say that the Flying Nun record label remains an important cultural force, and certainly there were elements of that which influenced me.

It is true that in the 1970’s, along with the arrival of television and radio, along with the rise of social movements, women’s liberation, anti-war movements, and while we had a slightly more liberal orientation anyway, all of those developments were certainly something that you had to consider.

One of the things I do think was different, for example, between Australia and New Zealand, was that there was a hedonistic element to quite a bit of Australian music whereas New Zealand musicians tended to talk about trying to change things.

There was a sense that New Zealand artists were trying to find a way to articulate a sense of justice and fairness, and I think there was a sense of that in groups like Split Enz, although they did get absorbed into the Australian culture and they were often described as an Australian band. That happened quite a lot to New Zealand artists that ended up in Australia. They were swept up into being part of Australiana.

Regardless of that there were two strands, artists who fought for change, and others who looked at the changes which happened.

Would you consider performance to be a big part of what you do?

I would go back to the Beatniks, particularly Ginsberg, who came out of the socialist networks in New York and very much saw poetry as something to connect with the people. As I said, I was influenced by the question of change and people who advocated for that and of course Punk Rock was something that impacted greatly.

The idea that anyone, regardless of your musical or lyrical ability, could just get up and create something, that you could do it, that mattered substantially. In my case I stuck at it, I persisted. I had, and kept developing, an extensive knowledge of literature, and I was trying to put that knowledge into the work that I was creating.

There was a lot of us doing that, and there was an international element in that in that those types of approaches were happening everywhere. In England there was Attila the Stockbroker and John Cooper Clarke, and at one point I contacted Attila the Stockbroker, and he was interested in what I was doing and invited me over to perform in England.

I stayed in London and performed on the alternative cabaret circuit in the UK and I also travelled to Denmark, and France, and that was invaluable.

Would you feel connected to the performance poets of today?

Every generation has a sense of its own orientation. I’m not sure I am connected to what is happening now but I do keep my ear to the ground and try to stay up with what is contemporary.

I was always inspired by great writers, people like Samuel Beckett, and I would draw from that cultural reservoir. I wanted to supercharge the language, to drive the sense of what was possible with language forward. Keep in mind, and this goes back to what I said earlier, that it used to be said that New Zealanders weighed every word like a pound of butter, in other words they didn’t say much but what they said mattered.

When Edmund Hillary conquered Everest, he said “Well, we knocked the bastard off.” What can you add to that and where does that kind of attitude and approach come from.I always wanted to add to the energy, I wanted to be part of saying, “this is what I stand for, these are my thoughts and ideas”, and you have to aim to make your mark. I think the intensity of language has to be worked on, and poetry allows you, in many ways, to do that.

You received the Poet Laureate a couple of years ago and that was announced on television?

Yes. I received a hand carved talking stick as part of the award. Australia doesn’t have a Laureate and New Zealand is very proud of our Laureate tradition. You are actually allowed to handle the term in the way that you feel is appropriate. It is quite free of formality and that is a wonderful thing about the award.

I would add also that I was told that I don’t need to be a representative or a spokesperson for a particular type of poetry or a particular approach, rather, that I can be relaxed about how I go about my work. That is another element of the approach here that I think is important.

It is a curious thing; there were, previous to myself, people from academic backgrounds, and there have been others who haven’t quite had that background. I think as I have said right through the interview there is a sense of fairness and justice which is built into much of the New Zealand character. I think it is directly connected to the Maori and Polynesian cultures. The tension between those cultures and the colonial culture has led to that.

Where to now?

I have been inundated with requests for poems and so I have plenty to keep me busy and I have my other interest with regards New Zealand culture, art, painting, literature and I want to look at the developments happening over time and write in a way which says things which haven’t been said before. I want to find a novel way of analysing and commenting on the cultural shifts that take place locally and what has influenced those shifts, and of course my poetry will reflect that as well.


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