new zealand electronic poetry centre




Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975 Comment and Context

Ed. Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond, Michele Leggott.
Auckland UP, 2000



Jack Body
, Wellington

Letter to ML, 25 June 2000:

BIG SMOKE has arrived. A great read. Thank you. But I was dismayed to note under the chronology for 1968 YOUNG AUCKLANDERS IN THE ARTS as being curated by Michael Volkerling. Michael was and is a friend of mine, but he had no part in organising that event. I was the president of the Auckland Society for Contemporary Music at that time.


Letter to ML, 6 July 2000:

Thanks for the reply. For an anthology celebrating such a period of our literary history I would take ‘the usual hail of stones/bullets/eggs’ as the greatest compliment!  


W.S. Broughton, Palmerston North

Letter to ML, 18 February 1999:

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s Evergreen Review was mandatory reading for those of us around the English graduate student world who were following Beat poetry and trying (as young students probably always do) to be serious with-it and avant-garde in matters of literature. It was part of a world that we associated with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, City Lights Bookshop, the revival of surrealism, and all that sort of thing. I think I was introduced to Evergreen either by Wystan Curnow or by Mark Young (a very fine but perhaps now forgotten Wellington writer from those years.) At any rate, I had been writing a lot of poems, and publishing them mostly in student periodicals. (Monty Holcroft gave me a push in the direction that my career was to go with a polite rejection slip which asked me to review for the Listener, saying that he much preferred my critical prose to my poetry!). But when I wrote ‘Threnody’ (in a state that I can only recall as ‘white heat’) I had a strong feeling that it was something different in both style and quality from anything that I had done before. I sent it to Landfall and quite understandably Charles Brasch didn't accept it. But I remained convinced that it did deserve publication, and in a journal of some importance. So I decided with total impertinence to aim for the top, and sent it to the most prestigious avant-garde journal that I knew of, heard nothing for several months, wrote to enquire, and was told ‘yes.’

So far as I know, only one other New Zealander published in Evergreen. He was a novelist called John Hooker, from Dunedin at the time that Evergreen published a section of a novel. He later moved to Melbourne with a publishing house where I once met him about 1966 or 67. His novel Jacob's Season was published by Penguin in 1971. Evergreen changed its format about 1964, and became more a piece of tabloid fringe erotica, and lost its way as a literary journal in the maze of mid-60s hippiedom, but in its heyday it was a journal to be taken seriously, and I was very proud to have been accepted in it, even if it startled some of the fairly conservative staff at Massey University where I had just taken up an appointment.


Letter to ML, 23 February 1999:

Thanks for the message, and particularly the news that Mark Young is still surviving. . . . Re Donald Allen's New American Poetry, I think it must have been around not later than 1961, since I recall Wystan Curnow reading from it (Gregory Corso, et al) at the NZ Universities' Congress at Curious Cove in January of 1962. If I happen to have dated my own copy, which is on my bookshelf at home, I'll let you know.


Letter to ML, 27 July 2000:

This note is just to say how delighted (and, in a way, secretly, a little bit proud) I am to have the publisher's copy of Big Smoke and to see it in the bookstores. I've only seen Iain Sharp's Star Times review so far, but local comment has been mostly expressions of interest, together with the observation that AUP did us proud with an exceptionally good format and presentation.

It's also a book where the editing has evidently been both scrupulous and thorough; the essays and the chronology make it a valuable document for anyone interested (as I am) in the mid Twentieth Century as a distinct and identifiable period of our own literary history. Thanks again for including my poem in the book. But tell me, did I really describe the Contemporary Arts Group as ‘a vortex in the maelstrom of southern culture’ as you say I did on page 315? Where did I make this startling pronouncement? I know I was at the Christchurch Arts Festival, but did I write it up in Craccum or something equally indiscreet? I'd be interested to know. Perhaps this only proves the truth of the old adage, that ‘if you can remember the 1960s, then you weren't there!’

Thanks again for what you and your fellow-editors have done.


Stephen Chan,
Nottingham, UK

Letter to ML, 6 April 2000:

Eeeeeeeeeiiiii, it may be a BIT hard to be there for the launch, but have a good one. Say hello to Murray and all the others . . . yes, I was editor of that newspaper [City News] at that time and, yes, I guess I was responsible for the poem [Tuwhare’s ‘The NZ Land March on Wellington’] appearing there. We did lots of those things: full page features with poets like Russell Haley, etc. Did you ever come across the newspaper New Argot, which I also edited (same era), in which I tried (unsuccessfully) to construct a model for arts journalism in NZ?

I'm afraid I'm uncertain as to whether I shall EVER return to NZ now. The last really bonding link, totally uncontingent link, went with my mother's death 18 months ago. In the meantime, I'm REALLY happy about the new Prime Minister, with whom I used to sit in English and Political Studies tutorials; about the America's Cup victory; and I want to see Murray's new book of poems, but it feels so incredibly distant now. All I miss are the skies and sea, but that's because I live in England, and it's easier to visit Greece than NZ. But I'm really happy about Big Smoke. That activism made me, a refugee's boy, feel unalienated to be part of the country. Other activisms since have rather put the juvenilia of my life (the way we live, not just the way we write) into perspective

I'm pretty certain I sent a bio with some form or other I had to return. If it's not there, yeah, make it up. I've long regarded myself as fictional anyway.


Letter to ML, 30 August 2000:

A couple of things for any future editions:

1. someone very helpfully clipped an additional verse onto one of my poems. I don't object. I think it made it a better poem! Perhaps somewhere else there is another less happy poet, missing a few lines?

2. I loved the chronology of activism. I think you mis-stressed a few things. Mind you, everyone at that time had an individual fix on what we did. Most would agree about the importance of the 1969 sit-in at the US Consulate in Auckland. That was as defining a moment in radical youth politics as Freed was in its literary variant.

3. I loved the photos – especially as I seemed to have directed the shooting of a great percentage of them. The one with Greer, Kedgley and Ngahuia (Volkerling, as she then was): the unidentified woman standing with them, dark hair, pensive look, is Anne Gilbert – then a frequent figure on the feminist scene, and the only member of the AU feminist group who was older, a 'housewife' with two school-age children, and coming back to university. Toni Church was the only other woman nearly in this position, but her children were grown up. I think Toni has since died. The rest were unencumbered and, retrospectively, it showed – as it showed in all our politics at the time. I think back at our naivety and am very impressed that so many have now matured but kept the faith.

Hope this helps. The volume was cool.


Letter to ML, 31 August 2000:

As for the sit-in, March 1969, that was organised by Alan Robson, the truly unsung hero of the early protests. Now a Somerset Maughan-type figure engaged in political research in the jungles of Asia and the Pacific. The sit-in gave Tim Shadbolt his first national platform. Before then, he had been a colourful figure within student politics alone. More than that, with the headlines gained by the sit-in (Karl Stead, who, with Roger Horrocks, tried to stand bail for us, kept the Herald front page on display in his office for years) and the ensuing court cases, this was the event that sparked the desultory anti-Viet Nam war protests into something larger. The same sit-in collective, again mobilised by Alan but, again, fronted by Tim, organised the Jumping Sundays in Albert Park. It was the same collective (or members thereof) that bombed and dynamited its way across various flagpoles and court doors . . .

It was just one of those rare moments when the protagonists were mostly content just to do things without the encumbrance of public personality shows. As for Tim, we were happy he took front central stage. We needed an Abby Hoffman/Jerry Rubin-style crazy out front – and then he just took off and became, well, Tim . . .

As for the PYM, my opinion is that they were an important but finally fringe player in all of this. We envied the Communist Party's organisational resources, and so we were in alliance. We also admired [Bill] Lee's considerable charisma and devotion, so, next to Shadbolt, he was the most public figure in the protest movement. (Of course, once HART got underway properly, Trevor Richards was also rather public, as was Sue Kedgley on the feminist front.) However, we had considerable difficulties with the 'old' Marxism of Lee, the PYM, and the Communist Party – despite its Maoist and then Albanian turns. Like Brunton et al with their readings of Olson and the French crazies, we were reading Marcuse and the Frankfurt School (very naively) enough to know something had to change in the history of doctrine. The PYM simply could not organise beyond its own ideological parameters, e.g. there HAD to be a concentration on gluing the students to the workers. Even logistically this was impossible, as, frankly, the workers were far more aligned to the pro-Moscow Socialist Unity Party. So we had great FRIENDS among the PYM and the parent party (we used to hang out at the Progressive Book Shop all the time), but we thought them limited and they thought us fey romantics. As I said, I wrote a sort of a novel about all this . . . I do look back upon it all exactly as fey romanticism. Our grasp of theory and political philosophy was so primitive . . . We all saw ourselves as Byronic figures, with the style to match, not to mention the traumatic personal lives, and I must say we were driven as much by the image of rebellion as by the cause for rebellion. We didn't think that at the time, of course; and perhaps every young person has to do it like this.


Diana Cloud (Holdom), Wanganui

Letter to ML, 9 February 2003:

Ngaire [Bunn] and I were farm kids from the Wanganui area. We were always in the same class at Wanganui Girls’ College, but I came from a bit further out, and was a boarder. I never did learn any social skills, being locked up in Wickham House with 100 and something other girls, with whom I generally had very little in common. I just wasn’t interested in clothes and boys. I was dismissed as a swot: ‘nerd,’ to this generation.

When I got to Wellington in 1960, I was very self-conscious, very intense, and although humour has always been my favourite genre, never smiled for the camera because I had (and have) very crooked teeth. So I got a very unfair reputation for being serious. I was totally intimidated by the cliques that were the Vic Literary Society and Drama Club, which was a huge disappointment because I had aspirations, particularly to acting, despite the obvious handicap . . . I’d sit quietly at the back and gradually went to meetings less and less. I do remember being mesmerised by Mark Young reading ‘Howl’ in clouds of cigarette smoke, and can’t now imagine how the rest of the group responded . . .  and at Drama Club by Michael Hathaway playing Oedipus Rex. But mostly those clubs were inhabited by the secure, dare I say smug, middle class types from good professional families for whom education was a natural expectation. For me, it was a rebellion. My father, being British and a farmer, thought I should get out to work as soon as I got School Cert, since he did not have the connections or influence to get me into professional life. He always asserted that I would have to earn my own living, since no man would have me . . . I didn’t expect, at 18 and naïve, to have to rebel against the gals in twinsets, but that’s essentially what happened. I should have known, because school, as I said, had been like that.

Towards the end of 1961, I did however begin to find more congenial company. Cathy Benefield  took me along to a record club (I resisted, because I had, and have, a tin ear; maybe that’s why I spent 27 years with a musician in Canada). But I met Mel [Stone] and Ros [Rosalind Hursthouse] there, among others. Mel got me started on The Once and Future King and probably The Lord of the Rings too. I’ve been a fantasy freak ever since.  

Anyway, in 1962, Ngaire and I and two other Wanganui classmates, Eleanor Odlin and Dorothy Dallison, rented a flat in Old Karori Road, where people used to sort of follow us, or more often, Ngaire, home. Ngaire and I rapidly developed a wonderful bohemian lifestyle that I think rather shocked our two room-mates: Eleanor told me recently that NOTHING could surprise her after that year. 

About this time, Con O’Leary, who I hear has changed not at all, turned up from the South Island and started making noise. The Contemporary Arts Group (nastily dubbed ‘Con’s Temporary Arts Group’ by some) started staging Ionesco, Beckett et al. I was still a bit too intimidated to try to do anything public, but the people were a lot more easy-going, tolerant, blunt, and I suppose, for the time, outrageous . . . and I enjoyed it. I sold tickets, and the drama was terrific. Ngaire became the secretary of the Contemporary Arts Group.

Argot started, as these things do, as a coffee bar ramble during which Ngaire, Mel and Ros (I think it was, though the late John Iorns may have had a hand in it too) decided we needed a new literary magazine. I remember coming home to the three of them sprawled, as they often were, in the living room at the flat, and being asked what I thought, and it sounded like a good idea to me too. I can’t exactly remember how Peter [Frater] got on board but he was often around and was probably there as well. So we just decided to do it. The name was Mel’s, I think, and there was some debate about it. It must have been Ngaire and the others who rounded up the material. I’m not sure how she knew the writers like James K. who were very supportive. She typed the first issue or two on the Contemporary Arts Group’s typewriter, although Argot was a completely separate enterprise. I also owned a typewriter; my father had given it to me for my 14th birthday, ostensibly because he hoped it would encourage me to take up a sensible job, but actually, I now realise, because he did secretly hope I might write (I didn’t, much). Anyway, despite the fact that I was and am a lousy keyboarder, I got to type the stencils for some of the later issues: certainly the Polynesian one, and I think maybe one or two others. My stencils were mostly pink correcting fluid by the time they hit the Student Union gestetner. Only Peter could keep that thing running. I don’t know where we got the paper, stencils, staples: maybe Ngaire does: We probably borrowed from CAG and then paid our way after selling the first issue. Production on the first two or three issues was laborious and I remember that more than the literary side. Ngaire or I typed, Peter gofered and cranked, and we all collated and stapled round a large table in the Student Union. Then we sold them at the doors of the cafeteria. I think it was just a natural division of labour. Ros, who was brilliant and very focused, dropped out early on to concentrate on her studies, as witness the editorial page, and Mel with her. Or maybe there were differences, I don’t remember. Then Ngaire left Wellington for personal reasons so Peter and I carried on for a bit, and then I had to drop out to work for my Masters degree in 1963, and Peter really kept it going, recruiting writers and help. He’s always stuck with things like that after others have wandered off, and I don’t think he gets enough credit. I lent the typewriter to the next editor, John Parkyn (who I didn’t really know), who chucked it down the stairs; it was apologetically brought back, repaired, by Peter. I eventually consigned it to the Toronto garbage in 2002 when I was liquidating all my assets to come back to New Zealand.

Later, I think Argot may have been co-opted by the Contemporary Arts Group (which, as I said, had nothing whatever to do with its founding, it just happened at the same time), and later still, I discovered to my consternation, by the Literary Society, but by then I was in Canada and completely out of the picture.   

It was a pretty short association, really, and just one part of my life at that time. Maybe, if you or your students have any questions that could focus me I might be able to answer them (or not). Ngaire is very busy, as she is teaching accounting at Massey and doing her PhD; She’s in the esoteric, philosophical and social end, philosophy having been her first love. This after a whole other life that has included four sons, a marginal farm up the Wanganui River, and being widowed at 40.


Christina Conrad, Woodstock, New York

Letter to ML, January 1999, Paekakariki:

i laugh & greet you as a fat sun
falleth over a black hill –
& the sea doth lap in my ears –
i once kept 20 short stories in a black box –
written in my 21st year at Pukerua bay –
13 years later –
i opened the box –
fitfully my hands –
& Lo! the silver fish had devoured
a pile of confetti lay in the box
-- a black hood the lid –
ah words i rush to the clay –
is Riemke Ensing still teaching? –
if you know her address i would be pleased to contact her
alas for this scribble – there is a child who
lives near by – she has a bear called Oscar Hamilton!
Michele –
i hoped you would include
The foxglove song –
it is rather whoppin it doth swelleth in the
ancient – obsessive –
it would give power to the other howls –
Yea! desire doth burn & raddle – !!
i have been working on a play called
‘A Modern Crucifixion’ -------
however –
I rave –
& the morn who was –
fresh – & unbroken
doth heave now –
Volcanic – in fiery crevices –
the sea doth pound in my
ignorant ears –
my tarred bonnet hath slipped to
a rakish angle – !
i laugh & greet you
look forward
to speaking
& Yea!!
i am interested – obsessed in justice
tho – ah!! – how can I speak – the passage to the
throate has temporarily closed


Letter to ML, 28 August 2000

thank you for your letter. yes, you can print this, and if you can set it out on the page as it was originally written, that would be wonderful. I’d also like to write something else about the book, and perhaps you can use it as well. it's a pretty weird thing i'm going to write, as i haven't yet dared open the book . . . as part of my life is sealed inside it. the shards of the volcano . . .

I still have potent feelings towards new zealand. . . . I will write something else about big smoke this morning which i shall send later today or tomorrow.


Robert Creeley
, Buffalo, New York.

Letter to ML, 12 September 2000:

Puff, the Magic Anthology! BIG SMOKE has just arrived with Penelope and many thanks to both you and Murray for sending it. It's a remarkably complex and defining piece of work – i.e., as much anthropology in obvious ways as it is a compendium of a period's writing. No doubt that fact alone provokes such questions as some will inevitably have. Still format, range, particularity, all seem very solid indeed. You've all certainly done your work, and what else is to be said.


Warren Dibble
, Sydney

Letter to AB, ME, ML, 4 March 1999:


Good to know there’s still a ‘RA!’ or two around for ‘optimism.’ A dangerous word these days. Go for it.

I like the concept – too much mental narcissism around at the moment, with fake rap-energy. . not that I liked the 60s all that much – the real psychic and emotional shift was going on (in NZ) off all the scales of all the psychedelic, che-guevara stuff and cloned new attitudes. But at least it was NOISE at last, after the church-silent fifties, indubitably the most narcotic decade in the history of the universe.

Have you ever been struck just how SILENT many – most? – of NZ poems were – are? – written in the 40s & 50s? On the whole, the poem didn’t want to draw attention to itself. The poets tip-toed around inside their poems with a sort of conspiratorial HUSH. The shoutings & bangings of everyday life, in a lot of poetry through those decades, were, or seemed to be, noises off. (allowing, as always with risky generalisations like this, for the brilliant exceptions.)

On the other hand, the 60s – as you most perceptively point out – lasted well over into the 70s. (We Kiwis like to take our own time.) And the surface sound, the TOP sound, was pretty tinny, in the sense that it was copy-catting US forms, I think the problem was we weren’t ready for it – the mood was still ‘MAN ALONE.’ We had to scramble. We weren’t essentially joiners. America had always been youthful. The NZ youth hadn’t yet been invented.

So you got this great surge (& optimism was definitely a part of it) – of release, of a dawning gleeful optimism that it was okay to be RUDE – and so on – all the stuff you’ve itemised in your promo; but we’d been taken by surprise, we didn’t have any clothes to wear to the party! The HOOLEY! Hey! A few of us pakehas belatedly noted that Maoris had known how to party, for a long time. But the cross-overs – Maori-Pakeha – Pakeha-Maori – were sparsely mapped on our cultural paper, a lot of terra-incognita. It was there all right, going on very vigorously under our noses; but I think NZ poetry missed a lot of it; or rather, our academic poetry-minders mis-directed our young poets.

So, as I see it, when the sixties flowered in NZ all the men alone came rushing down from their windswept peaks to JOIN IN. Men who no longer wanted to be alone looked at Maori community – which looked back at them – and there was awkward, uneasy goodwill – BUT – the chloroformed silence of the hideous 50s had been broken.

Except, at the start, we were all yelling at each other, singing with each other, marching with each other in borrowed plumes & with borrowed voices.

The really interesting thing is how the sturdy, sane, deeply reflective AUTHENTIC NZ voice (in poetry – only one of the social markers – I personally was more into theatre) slowly gathered itself, and shucked off the Americanisms and the cruder try-ons of style and emerged clear hard & vigorous from 60s claptrap. Which it certainly has. And of course what happened was that MAN ALONE began to listen to WOMEN TOGETHER. I would also argue that in the 60s & through the 70s a Feminisation of general culture emerged and that one of its strongest sources, astonishingly enough in retrospect, was Maori community. That might not seem obvious, but it’s a theme that might well be explored. (Lone white wolf melts among men & women at Maori gatherings) (and not just at the big ceremonies – did one poet ever get down those tin sheds and fibrolite country meeting buildings etc where Maoris let go & BOOGIE-WOOGIED and JIVED – and I mean GI-black, pure jive, pure Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson 8-to-the-bar-beat BOOGIE, man!? I was there. I saw it. And I tell you: that was where NZ was really kicking in the late 50s and early 60s! and hardly any of the whites knew about it. Still don’t, from what I’ve read.)

Anyway, didn’t mean to lob on like that.

Hopefully Big Smoke will allow readers to track some of those directions and find patterns not noticed before. What am I saying? Poetry as social pattern? Never!! Let’s hear it for poetry as paradox!



Last updated 21 March, 2004