INTERVIEW WITH KENDRICK SMITHYMAN
This interview is based on a two-hour conversation tape-recorded towards the end of July 1988. The transcript was supplemented a little over the ensuing weeks. We have cut expressions of anxiety and frustration over pathetically insensitive microphones, numerous 'ums' and 'ahs', and sentences in which we lapsed into total incoherence. Nor does the reader have our eloquent silences, of which Pinter might have been proud. But most of our conversational side-trackings, associational leaps, and ramblings around a subject remain. We seem to have lost a bit in which Kendrick remarked that he kept referring to himself as a Northlander long after he had settled in Auckland. Perhaps many poets feel like outsiders of one kind or another, but the sense of being a seal in the dolphin pool struck me as strong in Kendrick, and it provided a sub-text to much of our talk.
Kendrick Smithyman was born in 1922, and was married to Mary Stanley till her death in 1980. He is now married to Margaret Edgcumbe, a tutor in the Auckland University English Department, from which Kendrick retired in 1987. He has published nine volumes of verse since 1950, the most recent being Stories about Wooden Keyboards (1985), which won a New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, and Are you going to the pictures? (1987): both are published by Auckland University Press.
MAC JACKSON I'd like to know something about your boyhood in Northland. Where were you born?
KENDRICK SMITHYMAN Wouldn't the question be better if you were asking Why? I was eventually to understand that my begetting implied nothing about my parents' wish to reproduce, it was more of a tribute to the enhanced fertility which comes from eating toheroa, of which my father had grown much too fond. As for Where?, the place was Te Kopuru, a milling village south of Dargaville. It has been described as a ghost town, which is very upsetting. Believe me, it does something to you when you are told you come from a ghost town, it troubles your sense of identity. Moreover, I went back there once with Keith Sinclair to show him ... the cottage hospital had vanished, the Home where I spent my first years had been demolished, the house we moved to after we left the Home, that was gone too. You take my point? Who is stalking behind me, doing away with the evidence? Although I usually refer to Te Kopuru as a village, it was, is, more of a hamlet. Maybe that sounds a bit William Faulkner-like? Okay, at one time I saw and wrote about Te Kopuru in that Faulknerian fashion. Nonetheless I had a bit of a shock when one of our sociologists who was raised in those parts said one day 'it's all Faulkner country, isn't it?' Oh man! there's something to that - with a dash of Edwin Arlington Robinson as well. You know Robinson had a wistful dream for years, of how wonderful it would be if he could only migrate to Auckland?
MJ Lucky he never had the chance to be disappointed. But to get back to the young Smithyman, is there anything about your upbringing that throws light on why you became a poet?
KS Well, yes, as I've just indicated. My parents always seemed to me to be old. Actually, they were forty-five or so when I was born. I was the only child of a late marriage. I spent my first years literally in the district Old Men's Home, which my parents managed. My first playmates had an average age of something like eighty. It's been said that T.S. Eliot was born middle-aged and never grew younger, but hell's teeth - I never had a chance, did I?
MJ You might still make it to kindergarten, if like crab you can go backwards . . . There are poems in Are you going to the pictures? about your early schooling. Can you tell us more?
KS My primary schooling was mostly at Point Chevalier, after starting at Te Kopuru and going on to Dargaville. We came to town and lived mostly in Point Chev, though we moved round and about. This was during the Depression, and the last real job that my father had was at the Old Men's Home. Thereafter he tried, but he had a genius for losing what money he had, and subsequently could never get employed because of his health, so he was on relief works and schemes of that type. Tell you what, the first day I went to school I told the class what I thought was a funny story. You don't need to make any comment.
MJ No, but it's nice to learn that some things don't change. You seem from one of the poems in Are you going to the pictures? to have been patronising the Majestic in Queen Street by about the age of ten or eleven. Was that when you moved to Auckland?
KS As a matter of record, I went to the pictures - silent, of course - before I started at school. Patronising the Majestic was some way down the track. I was nine or ten when we came to Auckland, a traumatic move. Or series of moves, since we didn't settle for another five years. We moved round or to and from Point Chevalier, and when I was about fourteen we finally located. I shouldn't want to exalt the Majestic too much. The Ambassador at Point Chev was more my place, over the road from the local library.
MJ Did you read a lot when you were a child?
KS Oh yes, yes. I had virtually a free reign over anything that came my way, and I'd been reading - I think the old men started teaching me from the newspapers - before I went to school. From a fairly early age I was sent to change the library books. My mother and father got pretty much what I chose. There wasn't much restriction on my reading (or attempting to read) and there was always a supply of books, kids' as well as adults'. Librarians throughout were helpful, as they still are.
MJ So you've been rummaging in libraries ever since. . . You keep returning to Northland in your poems . . .
KS I keep returning to the North. . . . A week or two back I'd have had no hesitation about agreeing, but in the last week or so I've been sorting papers. One pile I made I labelled The North. When I did I was staggered to find that after forty years or so of writing about the North and physically returning there on and off, in bulk the pile of North pieces doesn't amount to as much as I produced about travelling overseas for six months in '69 and to Canada in'81 when I put those two lots together. I'd have sworn there was a hell of a lot more about North Auckland, but the fact is there just isn't. Mind you, there will be more to add to the pile when I finish the book - poems about Papahurihia and the Hokianga which I've been tinkering with for years, but even so there just is not the amount of writing about the North I'd have sworn to. I go back physically, but in a sense I never left, or it's never left me. That disruption in childhood, that variation on the business of being in exile within the country perhaps, it hasn't worked itself out. It is psychopathological, eh? I don't profess to understand. But that has been augmented - do I mean supplemented? - by later life research into the history of settlement and such things as I looked into, for instance, when I was editing Satchell, plus a general interest in nosing about.
MJ Yes, I was going to ask you about your interest in New Zealand history, geography, and archaeology - local history in particular. How did these interests arise? Is it largely an obsession with Northland? It's certainly not solely that, because you've written poems on many places that summer-holiday motorists visit. . .
KS No, it's not solely Northland. It's most intensely that, I suppose. That is the part that I recur to, and it is also the part which I suppose I know most about, both physically. . . I mean I'm a very literal sort of person, and I like to sort of have my feet on a fact before I start to write about the place. That's the kind of thing. . . I go and walk the ground, see what's there, and smell it. But it's also the variety of interests that come along in growing up. Again, because of rummaging in libraries, I started off as I ended schooling mainly interested in psychology, and this was very much a never-never thing as far as Auckland and eventually coming to the university was concerned. Psychology was a very small part of that academic world. When I was actually given any kind of training, such as it was, it was in educational psychology, which was also a very sometime thing. That spread out, the other interests grew out of it.
MJ That's another thing I wanted to ask you about. I know you taught in primary and intermediate schools, working mainly with children who were slow learners through disability or maladjustment. Where did you teach, and how did that specialisation come about?
KS I taught always around Auckland. Even when I did my country service, in a sole-charge school, it was on an island not very far from down-town Auckland.
MJ How many years of that did you have?
KS Two and a half years on country teaching. Otherwise I had eighteen years or so. I never taught away from Auckland, partly of course because of having to be within reach of the hospitals and so on for Mary.
MJ Is there anything more you can say about that particular interest in disturbed children, and how it came about?
KS Well, it came about because when I was on the island, which at that time was a very strange place indeed, I had a very mobile roll. I had only one who went into the normal in the IQ. It was a matter of necessity, finding out how to cope with these kids from extraordinary sociological backgrounds, and often living in extraordinary family circumstances. That was where I got interested in remedial work, and from that onto other aspects of special education, in which I continued to be interested until I left the primary service. Let me put in a couple of things here, since you are enquiring about a would-be poet. I went to a teachers' college once to give a talk, and the chap who introduced me said, not altogether innocently, 'In other places people know Mr Smithyman as a poet, but here at College we know him as the author of critiques of the Currie Report.' Now there's a reputation to live up to! And not so long ago in a motor camp I got chatting to a husband and wife, and we duly exchanged names, and he said, 'I didn't recognise you, but of course - you used to lecture and write about special education. We haven't seen anything of you for years. Tell me, do you ever publish anything these days?'
MJ We've skipped the war years. . .
KS A very undistinguished career, except that in the Air Force I served as an aircraftsman first class for three years; it was as far as I know a record equalled only by a reputedly subnormal latrine and ablutions cleaner in one of the southern stations.
MJ How old were you when you joined up?
KS I was nineteen, at the end of '41. We went in supposedly for six weeks, into the Army. Unfortunately the Japanese did things to Pearl Harbour. I had a year in the Artillery and then transferred to the Air Force, which was a dreadfully silly thing to do.
MJ You must have been writing poetry by then.
KS Yes, indeed I was. There was one time in the Artillery when my Officer Commanding in a fit of exasperation cried out 'And where is my bloody quartermaster? He's in that store' - which was actually a garage with a sandy floor - 'writing fucking odes to fucking sparrows'. And subsequently in the Air Force, as I said somewhere in a poem, they were upset to find stocks of poetry gone rotten amongst the rations. I've still got poems written on the back of the RNZAF form for articles handed in for safe custody in the stores. But not much of that stuff has survived - partly because after the war there was a night in which I sat at the fireside with a mass of my papers and two other poets and we went through them saying 'Well, that one doesn't need to be kept, and that one doesn't need to be kept'. They did me a considerable kindness.
MJ Where and when did you first start publishing in literary journals?
KS Training College, then in places like the Observer. And then New Zealand New Writing, and a bit after that I broke into Australia in a fashion by way of Angry Penguins. People tend to look and say 'Heavens, you were an Angry Penguin'. So was Lou Johnson. So was Hubert Witheford, save the day. Through little reviews linked with Angry Penguins I went on to start in the United States and in Britain, and then I got tired of sending things away and getting no answer. Actually, when I first published an obscure Smithyman piece it was suspected of being a hoax - that was said in print. While I was at Training College I met up with Bob Lowry, who was enrolled as a graduate student and then as a third year art specialist. When eventually he was called up for Army service I was able to get him into the unit I was serving with. Bob was, to use an old-fashioned way of putting it, my mentor, and for a good many years a friend. He was of course going to publish me, more than once, but as was his way he didn't get round to it, apart from the little Seven Sonnets which we ran off one day as my answer to the Christmas present problem that year. Mind you, Bob wasn't the only publisher who didn't get round to it. I had at least a couple of others.
MJ Seven Sonnets appeared in 1946, and Landfall started up in the following year. What sort of relationship did you as a poet have with Charles Brasch as editor? Did Brasch make detailed comments on poems you submitted to him?
KS Oh yes. Look at what John Geraets put into the article he had in Landfall a while back. What John says there is true. I remained friendly with Charles, although I stopped sending him stuff. He was always deeply thoughtful within his range of taste, and although I may have been severe in my judgement of Charles's discerning abilities at the time, I'd now be inclined to say he was usually right. Looking over papers from those years, I've been appalled. Charles may have been over-cautious, but too often Kendrick, sad to say, was rather incompetent.
MJ That's one question I wanted to ask you. You've been preparing a Selected/Collected - what's it called?
KS It's a mass or a mess of paper at the moment, the possibly potential Collected. A draft Selected Poems was put together last year and is with the Press (Auckland University Press) at Elizabeth Caffin's urging, so it's in process. I'm sure the world is holding its breath.
MJ I wondered what volumes of yours you find you like best. Where are you taking most poems from? In my experience poets tend to be convinced that their most recently written work is their best.
KS They may be wrong. It's very easy to be wrong. It is as Valéry said about lines, there are those lines which are dieu-données and those which are ordonnées. Well, as a workman God is sometimes a bit sloppy, only time is needed to see that. The other thing which Valéry said is quite right too: poems are not finished, they are just abandoned. And since I have a mean niggly nature I hate abandoning anything. Wasn't it Auden who told someone, never throw anything away. It may come in handy. So I keep going back and having another dig at things to see whether they can't be made more respectable. Reluctantly I have to decide at times that really, no, this and this and this are not worth bloody saving. Nonetheless, it hurts. And then, the shame-making recognition that goes with it, of how wrong one has been. Then you realise, and may still be.
MJ I've seen worksheets of yours of the 60s and 70s in which you worry away at a poem through up to a dozen drafts, but over the last five or six years you seem to have been turning out poems almost effortlessly at a phenomenal rate. . .
KS Yes, but a lot of those effortless ones can now be looked at and have a necessary effort put into them. Some of them, as you know, were things which were very much anecdotal, story-telling pieces, when I was interested in a half-baked notion that the story in itself might be (put it in quotes) 'poetic', and as a result of that I did produce stuff with far too little effort, which looked at now, say five years later, makes itself very apparent. Commonly what they suffer from is a lack of tension. They are easily told stories; they are too easily told. So now they need some more artifice, and tightening up.
MJ It's always seemed to me that one of your most obvious strengths as a poet is that you have this eye for stories, incidents, bits of information which are potential poems. You just seem to pick them up everywhere.
KS They may be, potentially. Sometimes they actually work, or seem to. Now I've got a wad from, say five years back, which has got to be vetted, and a lot of it's got to be shortened.
MJ If I had to select for an anthology a single poem from your last two collections, I'd opt for 'Waitomo', because it so recognisably describes a tourist trail that most of us have followed, while, right from the opening phrases, drawing out so much metaphorical significance that the text resonates with the ultimate mysteries - life, art, death, love. But the manner is typical Smithyman. Is that poem's resonance just a matter of craft and work, or of the material being so rich as to engage your imagination more fully than the anecdotal pieces?
KS When we eventually get to the question part of that question, haven't you asked something that is more for the critic to answer than the author? For the reader more than the writer? Let me have a look at the poem. . . Was imagination more fully engaged? Imagination in whose sense of the term - Williams's, Stevens's, Coleridge's? More engaged than in which anecdotal pieces of the same book? The 'Legend of Sara's Gully' is obviously anecdotal and imagined, in a usual sense, but I was consciously imagining from the text in front of me 'What may it have been like?' when I was putting together the set 'Pasternak: The Making of the Poet' which are also anecdotal pieces. 'Waitomo' is telling a very little story, a report of what I saw and what I thought, only it's presented in the historic-dramatic present tense, and juggled a little in the presentation hopefully to make the report more interesting - more accessible? - to the reader, by which the reader's imagination is sympathetically excited. So I suppose I am saying that for me the Waitomo piece is a matter of craft and work which engages you, the reader, and stimulates your imagination from my imaging, plus one commonplace allusion. The facts of the caves are in themselves so potential for metaphor, and indeed for symbol, that simply, but selectively, bringing them together energises the report and opens the way for whatever then resonates in it. Does that sound too much like a tutorial? I remember Glover on a panel asking 'Who set this examination paper?' He had a point.
MJ We'll give ourselves an A pass and move on. There's a character in David Lodge's Small World who subjects everything he has written over a long period to a computer analysis that reveals the constant recurrence in his work of the word 'grease'. I seem to remember your mentioning that you were once surprised to discover an excessive use of some word or image in your poems over a particular period. Has sifting through your work for the Selected/Collected Poems turned up any such unconscious obsessions?
KS Every time I sift through it things come to light that I haven't been thoroughly aware of. I mean I may be aware in part, but it's only recently dawned on me how tediously often I insist that something is true, or 'This is truth'; I have been testifying to it for umpteen years without realising that it's worked and worked and worked until it's threadbare.
MJ It sounds like Shakespeare's late plays - you know, a gentleman in Cymbeline saying 'Howsoe'er 'tis strange, yet is it true, sir'.
KS Thank you. Of course, what you do in that case is you catch something, you delete the word, you find something else, and the next time you come back and look you find that you've got a new set of recurring counters which begin to ring after a while less and less true.
MJ Here's a standard question that you're bound to expect to get thrown at you.
KS I expect nothing.
MJ Well, you've already touched on it yourself in mentioning the 'obscure Smithyman piece' suspected of being a hoax. From Rex Fairburn, who compared trying to make sense of some poem of yours in a New Zealand Poetry Year Book to untangling a fishing line, through Roger Savage, who said that a reader of Inheritance had to develop a skill analogous to the scrabble player's, to Marilyn Duckworth, who complained that reading A Seal in the Dolphin Pool was like translating a Latin unseen, reviewers have exercised their wit to find picturesque ways of calling your poetry obscure. Have you made conscious efforts over the years to be more intelligible?
MJ That's a nice simple answer. Couldn't be clearer. Care to expand?
KS Would you like another word for obscure? Just call it incompetent. That's what it is all too often.
MJ You think so? Is that your feeling about some of the earlier poems?
KS Yes, and later ones too. Often enough it's - this is not intended to be self-excusing - often enough it's because of what Alan Horsman once remarked of as a habit of overcompression, which means if I untangle it, there I am, lengthening the text again. But a lot of it is just plain incompetent. Some of it, of course, was fashionable, and from hindsight I can say unfortunately some of that was approved at the time when it would have been better for editors to have been like Brasch and said No, thank you.
MJ When Harry Ricketts interviewed twelve New Zealand poets for Talking About Ourselves, he asked all of them what they thought about Jim Baxter and his work. So it seems only fair that you should be lumbered with that question too. After all, back in 1960 Allen Curnow coupled you and Baxter in the words: 'That Smithyman is the most interesting and original of the younger New Zealand poets is no less obvious than it is that James K. Baxter will continue to enjoy widest repute in his native land.'
KS Yes, Allen coupled us, and he was not the only one. Jim on the whole was a conservative poet, a technically conservative poet, and that was the common condition of the practice of poetry as I saw it in New Zealand. Therefore, it seemed to me to behove one or two of us to be consciously less conservative, to get more in line with experimental writing, and particularly since we were finding that we could be published overseas - in quite good company: I mean, my first appearance in the United States was alongside William Carlos Williams; he had most of the space in that issue of Briarcliff Quarterly and I was in the last couple of pages. I wonder if Williams ever noticed.
MJ Anything more about Baxter?
KS Oh yes. I was friendly with Jim for years. I respected him as a magnificent tub-thumper, and at times more than that. I had a lot of regard for him - you've got to continue to have regard for him. But, as I say, he was not attempting the range, he wasn't taking the risks that a couple of us were taking.
MJ Back in 1975 you wrote 'About influences I can say nothing. There are too many of them'. Have you still nothing to say on the subject?
KS Who would you like to know about? I'm positive about one thing: William Wordsworth did not influence me. On the other hand I've noticed a distressing tendency on and off to do a Browning.
MJ You've probably read more widely in twentieth century poetry in English than almost any New Zealander. . .
KS I wonder if that's true.
MJ Well in particular you've been familiar with the work of most American poets long before they've become generally fashionable or influential in this country. . .
KS God only knows now who it began with, playing not so much the sedulous ape as the copycat chimpanzee. But Yeats was early, standing out from whatever else came to hand, which included oddly enough Pound's Active Anthology. If the Modern had pride of place in my later teens and into my twenties, the other main occupation came to light before long. That was the seventeenth century, where I read as widely as I could not because of what I was taught along the way, which wasn't all that much, but because I came across Charles Cotton and for reasons I shan't go into I did quite a lot of work on him which required me to read as widely as I could in what was available. This kept on, the seventeenth century in one hand and the Modern in the other, and as you know I ended up teaching them in tandem. A lovely way to earn a living, Wallace Stevens in the morning and George Herbert in the afternoon.
MJ Never Larkin all night and Donne the next morning? Sorry. You must have learned techniques and borrowed tricks from contemporary poets. You used to do syllable-counting verse - well, you still do - in Marianne Moore's vein, for instance. There's nothing else specific in that line?
KS I have too many debts, I've been to school to too many to bother naming names.
MJ To change the topic, you married a poet who is known and admired for a single slim volume of verse. I remember a TV interview with Fleur Adcock in which she says that marriage to Alistair Campbell inhibited her from writing verse herself. She jokes that she 'couldn't write with a real poet in the house', but goes on to say that Alistair couldn't seem to write either while they were together. What was the effect on you and Mary of living with somebody who was creative in the same field?
KS Well, often enough it was good for me, but I doubt that I was good for her. But also she had the most handicapping kind of working methods, so that she was almost bound to be ninety-nine per cent hamstrung whenever she got to work on anything. She had an inability to produce any notion of a whole poem, so that if she bogged down . . . It was almost word by word writing. If she bogged down she bogged, and she could never get out of it. Yet strangely, if she had to write to a deadline (which was only rarely the case) she could produce, subject of course to the fluctuating states of her illness which set in while she was in her twenties and just went on and on.
MJ She was a slow, one-bit-at-a-time sort of writer, whereas you . . .?
KS Whereas I had verbal diarrhoea. And for much of the time I - not always, it went in surges - I'd bat stuff out on the principle of let's have a look at it and see how it goes, you can always stick it aside and come back and have a look at it later. In some cases it was forty years later.
MJ Karl Stead wrote somewhere that he regretted that he lacked an exact contemporary and close friend with whom to discuss his work, such as you had in Keith Sinclair. Is there anything you can tell us about your relationship with other New Zealand poets? I know that for the 1985 Concert Programme series called 'Preferences' you chose to speak on a poem by Mike Joseph, whose work you've consistently praised.
KS Yes, I think still that Mike is underestimated, and I would like to see a complete M. K. Joseph, because it's seventeen years now since that Selected. Another poet, who I actually didn't have anything to do with but who I would like to see reprinted, and tried for - I couldn't get co-operation over it - is Charles Spear. Which is getting away from your question. What other poets?
MJ What about your friendship with Keith Sinclair, to come back to that?
KS Well, yes, Keith was there, and Bob Chapman and . . . There was always the sense of having a few people that I could reckon were interested, so that in many ways I wrote for them, as far as an audience went. And often enough otherwise, as I've said in the past, I wrote things to see how the machine worked. Technical exercises. Sometimes of course the exercise emerges as sheer, and not good, imitation. Sometimes it works like a plausible forgery. Or am I doing myself too much credit? In recent years, again as you know, I have tried things out by circulating them within the Department, to you and Karl and Terry (Sturm) and Don (Smith) and . . . uncle Tom Cobleigh and all from time to time.
MJ Now, A Way of Saying . . .
KS Good God!
MJ . . . which you published in 1965. As far as I know, it's still the only book-length study of New Zealand poetry. The gist of your argument, to quote the preface, was that 'New Zealand poetry progresses from being dominated by romanticism towards the academic temper; from provincial to regional writing'. Can you say anything about what drove you to write the book, and how its concerns strike you today?
KS 'Drove' is not the right word. The suggestion was made by Bob Dudding, who edited Mate, that I might write him some articles about New Zealand poetry. So instead of writing a miscellany I thought here we go, let's see if we can work out a kind of rationale. So I came up with a scheme, and hung the various garments on the pegs. Then it was taken from that point by John Reid, who at that time was doing a lot of work for Collins, who then had a very sympathetic executive, Ted Ford, so that the book was produced eventually rather to Collins' embarrassment, who got shot of it as fast as they could. It became something of a best-seller in bargain-bins and supermarkets, as my various friends enjoyed telling me.
MJ Yes, but it was stolen within hours of first appearing on the display shelves of the Auckland University library.
KS True, I was advised by the Auckland University librarian that he would like me to know it was the first new book stolen that week.
MJ Have you anything to say about the concerns of that book?
KS It's so long since I looked at it . . . It suffers from having no index. The poets had to go through it to find out if they were mentioned.
MJ If you had to write a book on New Zealand poetry since 1965, what might be your main themes this time?
KS Well, nothing spectacular. It would be to start, as I did before, from what appear to be the givens - 'closed form' / 'open form'.
MJ Have you any thoughts about that debate? Do you think it makes sense to talk of a 'main current' in New Zealand verse over the last two decades?
KS I haven't really any clear and firm thoughts about a possible book of criticism and not much inclination at present to develop any. But I did have some idea of looking at the practice of New Zealanders, whether or not they were purportedly 'open' or 'closed', in relation to the breath unit, the line, the traditional battle with iambic pentameter, and the sentence, which at times I have suspected is more importantly the unit of composition in our practice at poems.
MJ What's your favourite definition of poetry? Eliot's about it's being a superior form of entertainment? Or would you prefer to leave out 'superior'?
KS A desirably superior form of entertainment. Or Auden, of literature as a game. But I can't say that I've ever worried very much about it. Which is perhaps why I've got into trouble from time to time in what I do, because I don't have enough notion of what poetry 'ought to be'. Do some poems, and find out if that's what they are.
MJ Since 1966 you've tutored in the English Department at the University of Auckland. How has that affected your practices and interests as a poet?
KS Well in one respect perhaps it tended to make things more academic? I had not been writing for a while when I began teaching in the Department, so I was able to ease myself back into writing again, and to write with people round about who were a limited audience but an informed audience and a critical audience. Later, as you know, I'd write stuff and circulate it immediately, just to see what the reaction was. Actually, when I started off on that - really started circulating things, which was comparatively late - there was an ulterior purpose to it. I'd started to put together pieces about going to Canada in '81. It occurred to me that there were and had been people in the department who were actively writing, which one knew, but did not know what was being done at all. What I did over the Canadian stuff was produce a long series of poems - I had my limited audience, a captive audience, I could feed them a book as it was being made, whether they knew it or not. They were going to be aware at some time this began and this finished, and this is what happened along the way, recognising that there would be further changes and revisions and so on, and that things would be moved around and about. In effect, they were present at the making of a book, something which they had often enough talked about, but here they were now, so to speak, participants. Apart from that particular development, as you know, Mac, there have been times when you came up with something and I picked it up, and produced a poem around it, and Don commenting on that sparked off another. Mind you, they were both bits of nostalgia. Still, occasioned by the Department.
MJ Yes, and of course you've turned out splendid occasional pieces for Departmental functions - retirements, and so on: there can't be many poets since Ben Jonson who could have met that sort of challenge so successfully. But to return to the theme of 'making a book', a book of your poems does seem very much a coherent collection. Is that something that comes out of the poems' belonging to a particular period or place or do you work hard at shaping a coherent collection?
KS There may be things in a book that have been produced over quite a range of years, and may mistakenly be thought to be recent. Sometimes it's a case of finding . . . say, I have two that I have done recently and a third quite a way back. That can go now with them and qualify the recent ones. But I think what made me most conscious of the design of a book as such was Robert Lowell. I have admired Lowell since his Poems 1938-49 came out in 1950, and the strength of my admiration can be seen in things like 'Of Death by Water', which was in the Poetry Yearbook of 1952. Maybe I persuade myself at this date, but I think it was Lowell who first made me aware of the shape possible to a book of poems, the relating of part to part, and the illuminating. Not that I saw this in 1950.
MJ When did you begin to build any of your books, as books?
KS I couldn't rightly say, partly because I put 'books' together but they didn't necessarily get printed. And whatever the devising, it doesn't always work. One of the books I carefully put together, and the reader for the press failed totally to discern it, so I said Oh to hell with it and scrubbed the design. I've always taken notice of what press readers say. But in the case of Are you going to the pictures? the reader had a comment - fair enough, if that gibs with the reader, take it out, and reorganise. And then Elizabeth Caffin had a comment - all right, reorganise, till finally we - Elizabeth and I - arrive at the shape of that book. Something trivial in that case is that the book opens with an animal jumping up and it ends with an animal jumping down, the goat at the beginning, the cat at the end. It gives a sort of sense of symmetry. Come to think of it, it begins with a family festival and it ends with an empty, or a vacated kitchen. The Goat, the Hecate . . . I begin to wonder if this is so trivial after all. Let's see what happens halfway through, say page 52 . . . why, there's a reference to you there! This can't be accident of make up of the pages, can it? Want to change the subject?
MJ You've been reading the numerologists on Renaissance poetry. But yes we'll change the subject. You've spent quite a bit of time in different places overseas - in Canada and Britain, and experiences in these places have been material for a lot of your poems . ..
KS Right, and wrong. Let's be quite clear about this. I have not spent a great deal of time overseas.
MJ Well, you must have made good use of the time you have spent,, because . . .
KS I went to England, Leeds, in '69. I covered quite a bit of usable territory in those six months, which included very briefly being in Canada, in California, San Francisco, then Fiji and here. I was putting stuff together yesterday, and that material was written up and worked over for three years. In fact, even later, because I wrote a couple of things from notes or drafts only two or three months ago. But in the case of the book about Canada, which refers to 1981, I was there for only three weeks. I'm apparently a quick take on things - minimal noting. I was writing letters from Canada every day, which Margaret was saving, having been firmly instructed to do so, because these were my field notes, and also ideas for poems which are very very note-form indeed. I worked them up afterwards, with recall of things, which they stimulated. And the Canadian pieces are a mixture of people and places, because they were very striking people at the Toronto Harbourfront Festival. I did it partly because here was a literary festival: I thought Why not make a book about the people who make the books at the Festival. . . a celebration . . . and put a frontpiece and tailpiece onto it. Whatever the bulk, mainly unpublished, I've travelled very little.
MJ What about the time you spent in Leeds? How did being there affect your writing? Anything special, or was it just a matter of again picking up the atmosphere of a particular new place?
KS How was my writing affected? By an over-plus of subject matter, the excitement of the new experience and the old world I'd only heard about. I got out my little sketch book and my crayons and went to it, the colonial provincial naïf that Tintern Abbey had been waiting for: move over, Willy Wordsworth, here I come. I was too busy to bother about experimenting with forms, I was going mad with seeing - and touching; you know, the things to be seen and that you had seen as two dimensional had a third, solidity. And a fourth, history. Also I was going mad with the cold. God, it was cold. Not effect on form, but on vocabulary, yes. There was a new vocabulary available to play with, for things - and I mean, things - like 'dorter' and 'misericorde'. I lived at Harrogate for most of my not so long time, an experience in itself. Leeds was a good place to work from, and to work at. There were very good, friendly, people at the School of English , Derry Jeffares, Douglas Jefferson, Arthur Ravenscroft, Andy Gurr who found a typewriter for me so it was rather like it got to be at Auckland, knock off a poem and try it out. And there were three poets around the School, Geoffrey Hill and the rather under-valued Martin Bell who was lovable and sad, and a very nice bloke from Virginia, Chuck Vandersee. Oh, and Randolph Stow too. A very good environment to work in, but then and afterwards writing about or working things up from notes, I was engrossed with reporting, whereas with the trip to Canada in '81, which was only a matter of three weeks or so, right from the start I was interested in varying the presentation, in 'experimenting'. Looking back at it, and the sense of making a sort of community to write in which I guess is implied - well, Andy was from Auckland, I met up with Sebastian (Black) in Leeds, Keith was at Cambridge and came to visit at Leeds, John Reid was in London where we visited with him, and Tom Crawford at Aberdeen. I didn't leave Auckland behind.
MJ Have you spent much time in other parts of New Zealand?
KS I've been around and about, but not enough. I scarcely know the South Island. I was stationed briefly at Nelson and at Blenheim when I was in the Air Force, and I've visited occasionally - very occasionally - at Christchurch and Dunedin, but hell, no, it's another country.
MJ Finally, or almost finally, I wondered whether you might have anything to say about religion or politics.
KS I have written about religion in New Zealand. The thing seemed to me to be that this was in fact a very religiously - I think this is somewhere in A Way of Saying - that this was a very religiously minded place, and it still is, and yet there was actually very little religious writing, devotional writing, exploration of spiritual consciousness . . . which led up to 'Journey towards Easter'. But my own religious conviction has been nil since an early age. I used to read theology for entertainment for a while.
MJ Like Frank Sargeson.
KS Yes. No. I was not trying to get rid of Methodism.
MJ Now, if you spent your early years in an Old Persons' Home, did your parents .. .
KS Well, you became aware of death. You became aware of old age too, and also the variety of people. You see these were . . . and that little settlement as it was, which I touched on in a poem in Going to the Pictures, the one about being educated, it begins with a quotation I picked up, my teacher was translating Anna Commena and so on, and what we had was this peculiarly small but very mixed population, Dalmatian, Danish, Swiss, Swedish, whatever I've got down there. They were round about in the Home. There was a Scotsman who couldn't speak English, except the most rudimentary kind. One who was not classed as a Dalmatian was simply and Austrian. A Prussian. A Russian Finn - bad tempered old bastard he was too. At one point we had three Norwegians who couldn't communicate except in broken English, because they all spoke different dialects. So that registered enduringly with me - the variety, once you started to look at it in archaeological, amateurish anthropology terms. But the religious factor, no. Politically, I had my greatest political excitement by joining the Labour Party. My father was a Labour Party pioneer, who had been in fact an IWW man, as I found out very late in life - and I think I got disenchanted during the war. It just seemed to me to be the kind of thing that wasn't really my game. My one political gesture really, I suppose, apart from invalidating various voting sheets, is that I voted for the expulsion of Jack Lee from the Grey Lynn branch of the Labour Party. My flirtation with Marxism ended when I was in the Air Force and I was in a flight store, a storeman, reading Lenin on colonialism, and it crossed my mind 'This bugger doesn't know what he's talking about'. And that was the political end. I did my stint of writing politically sympathetic and rather awful pieces, and I was surprised the other day to find that I had sent something to The Standard, the Labour newspaper, but no note to say whether or not it was published.
MJ Your life has had occasions for great grief. These don't in any obvious way appear in your poems. Would you agree that they get into the poetry in more indirect ways?
KS Yes, in the earlier years when there was a lot of death and dying about, a fact of life, along with the consequences of those deaths. The dead did not simply and terminally die. There's so much of that glooming in my earlier things that, if I can pinch a phrase from Alec Hope's celebrated review of Max Harris, it should have made me a best-seller in more cultured undertaking circles. Grief, grieving, it may not totally resonate these days. Pain and suffering . . . that was recurrent fact, as . . . In the long run, and it was a bloody long run, it's what Marianne Moore said, the greatest feeling shows itself in silence, not in silence but in restraint, and that gets to be ambiguous.
A revised version of this interview appeared in Elizabeth Alley and Mark Williams, eds, In the Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers (Auckland: Auckland UP, 1991): 121- 139.