ka mate ka oraa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
|issue 14, july 2016|
Extracts from letters and an interview, with commentary by Brian Potiki
The letters came handwritten on lined sheets (the earlier ones headed Minute Sheet and Cubitt Wells) and they came typed on thin white sheets of A4: letters from a Manners Street Post Office Box in Wellington; from Birkdale in Auckland; from Pataka Road; and, lastly, Williams Street in Taupo. The earliest that survives is from 1978, when Rowley was in his forties; by 1990 they’d become a regular – sometimes fortnightly - exchange, continuing up to a letter received three weeks before his death on 3rd April, 2016 of a heart attack (hoping we could meet up in Rotorua at the Tutanekai Street Night Market).
0n 19th and 20th December 2011 I interviewed Rowley. We walked around the Taupo lakefront then drove out to his writing room at Wairakei and on to his birthplace at Oruanui, me holding a small voice-recorder as he talked. He had a strong sense of literary history, as the letters and interview show; that and his self-belief in his own importance in what he later refers to as “the First Wave” of Maori writing made this excursion seem quite natural.
In his letters Rowley often discussed books he was reading or had read, and, in the last few months of his life, it was a great sadness to him to have lost the ability to retain what he was reading. In our last conversation he expressed a wish for “just two more years” so that he could see all of his stories published.
I felt an immediate rapport with Walt Whitman who liberated us from the restrictions of the formal poetry of England in particular. The major hiccup was that he wrote about a vast country – America – whereas I lived in a couple of islands, which his vast sweep didn’t suit. I nonetheless took some lessons from him and restricted the poems I wrote to the much smaller landmass and population way down at the bottom of the South Pacific.
I read some of V.S.Naipaul’s early stories in the early sixties (I can even remember the boarding house in Dunedin I was staying in at the time). I found them erudite and refined but wasn’t excited by him. Perhaps he seemed too academic?
A strange thing is happening – more and more I find that on certain days writing comes easily. Almost like...magic! Whereas for a week or two it’s a struggle – a battlefield – and I struggle to find the right form, no nearer resolving it than when I began, further away from the original idea, more tangled in knots. Then one morning I’ll wake up, have my usual breakfast, come up here to my cottage and voilà! Why did it all seem so hard before? I’ve had this tendency for most of my writing life. It’s only as I get older it’s become more pronounced. It is different if the work is being written on commission – then there’s an unhindered flow. A couple of thousand words a day? A matter of rolling up your sleeves and knuckling down, getting on with it, pounding out the words. You don’t wait for inspiration; if it’s there at all it comes during the process of writing. In my case these moments have been all too rare – I’ve never had the consistency of encouragement. I don’t know why. Perhaps my writing is not commercial. There’s been times when I felt I deserved – had earned – better treatment than I got. It’s just the way things panned out.
Writing for theatre and television (1978)
Rowley's dramatic writing at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s was part of the beginning of modern Māori dramatic writing, along with Harry Dansey whose play Te Raukura, written for the 1973 Auckland Arts Festival, was the first by a Māori. After I directed a production of this play in Wellington in 1975 (which Rowley attended), he shared his plan for a Wellington-based Maori theatre with Jim Moriarty and I. Both Jim and I took part in the numerous productions of his first play, ‘Death of The Land,’ along with many other actors. In excerpts from three letters Rowley discusses his involvement in theatre.
25 September 1978
At the moment we are flat stick negotiating, planning, scripting and casting a proposed series of six plays for TV One, done by TIAMP. We are insisting that the director be of our choosing. I will be undertaking over-all production. I’ve already drafted the format and several of us have been assigned the task of producing the scripts.
7 August 1981
The Protestors was broadcast in 1982 as part of the Loose Enz series of one-off dramas and featured Jim Moriarty, Merata Mita, Joanna Paul and Billy T James among others in a large and stellar cast. In 1983 Rowley Habib won a Feltex Award for the play.
14 June 1988
I often think about the ‘old crowd,’ Te Ika A Maui Players, Death of the Land etc. with a measure of nostalgia. For it seems to me now (and I even knew it then) that they were very vital times. A time that I haven’t been quite able to recapture again, despite sporadic sorties into the world of theatre, TV and live performances. The difference being that these others have only been brief, quick sharp stabs at it. In, get the job done, and out again. There hasn’t been an almost total commitment as it was in those days. Altho' to be honest I think it’s because I want it this way. Don’t think I want my life to be so totally taken over like that again. However there are times when I do feel I’m ‘out of touch.’ And it doesn’t help matters being here in Taupo and so far from the ‘pulse of things.’ Yet with Birgitte in my life this seems the right and proper place for me – for us – to be.
I’ve prefaced the following letter extracts with Baxter’s poem referring to Rowley’s time in Dunedin. He’d meet up with Jim and Jacquie Baxter later in Wellington - outside a Courtney Place record store he recalled them talking excitedly about the Bob Dylan record they’d just bought. Meanwhile he was thinking “who the heck is that?”
Midwinter Moon (for Rowley Habib)
Rowley, when we met in Princes Street,
James K Baxter: Collected Poems (OUP, 1979) p.364.
13 January 2010
From 1965 to 1974 – I was in my thirties, married with a young family, struggling to keep our heads above water – I worked as a truck driver, postie, groundsman, builders’ labourer, relief work planting willows along the banks of flood prone rivers. I did all this in Palmerston North, Taupo, Seaview, Petone while trying to keep the flame of my creativity burning. Most times I didn’t finish writing until three in the morning, then up again to start work at 7.30 or 8.00. It was the lowest and toughest period of my life. I went around half dead most of the time. And apart from three months spent in the Fiji islands I’d not been anywhere apart from New Zealand.
In 1984 I went to Menton as Katherine Mansfield Fellowship recipient. I took over about sixty-odd short stories; some finished, some in various stages of being finished. I took these as Katherine Mansfield was a short story writer of renown and as the award is in memory of her I felt these are the writings I wanted to work on.
I visited Samoa, late in 2005. At Oruanui Native school we native kids were read a chapter of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson as a treat by our headmaster. I think it was every Thursday and in the afternoon, same time. Possibly the last session before schools out at 3pm to keep our attention on our lessons throughout the day; waiting with baited breath for we were all enthralled by the unfolding story. Such marvellous, memorable characters. Right up a Māori kid’s alley. And hinting that education could be entertaining, exciting – not just a grind. On sunny days Jock Richardson would take the senior classes outdoors where we’d sit on the grass embankment while he sat on a chair in front of us reading and telling us a little of Stevenson’s life – how he died at a young age of consumption in his house (Vailima) in Samoa. This was portrayed to us as a barely imaginable place thousands and thousands of miles away rather than just up a way, north, in the same ocean we inhabited! It’s no wonder my generation grew up confused as to who we were, although possibly we were vaguely aware they were, like us, Polynesians.
Ironic isn’t it that a white man who only lived in the place for four years should be one of the major attractions for someone like myself (of Polynesian descent) when visiting Samoa. The house (a two-storied mansion that included expensive teak wood in its building) stands on a manicured lawn on the side of Mount Vaea – beautifully contoured, bush-clad, dominating Apia like Tauhara dominates Taupo. I was enchanted by it: a veritable landmark if ever there was one. Old-time sea voyagers returning I imagine, would spot it and say there’s Apia. It cost 15 tala (about 10 NZ dollars) to enter the house where a young Samoan man acted as guide to me and a middle-aged couple from NZ who, to my horror and embarrassment, displayed pig-ignorance regarding anything to do with RLS. Nevertheless our very cool and intelligent guide had a precise answer for their questions. Talk about being in the presence of a legend! Like walking down the hill in the dark with R.A.K Mason from Charles Brasch’s place on the Dunedin peninsular. Entering this place was exactly like that – stepping into a legend, where the great man lived and worked. Well, when he was well enough to. His presence in the house was made more tangible because of all the photographs with Robert sitting here, standing there in still recognisable places. On one occasion I stood exactly where he stood in one of the photos, leaning against the banisters of the great wooden stairs leading to the top floor. But of course I looked nowhere as elegant as he did. For one thing he was tall and lean (bordering on anorexic but that was probably the ravages of consumption) and dressed elegantly – kind of like a “swashbuckler” whereas I am short and...well, never mind!
The house has been restored, almost to the point of being sanitised. Shoes off at the door, no smoking, no food. But I was permitted to wander round on my own when our guide finished his spiel.
I picked the wrong time of the day (mid-afternoon) for climbing the hill to his grave, for although you’re sheltered by canopy from the sun, the heat is stifling, suffocating, humid. The sweat was fairly pissing off me! And it’s a long way up. But finally there was the great man’s tomb, about two or three metres high, with his self-written epitaph under the wide and starry sky...which seems fitting – he’s surely under the wide and starry sky up there. It crossed my mind as I struggled up the steep hill that there must’ve been a few hot and sweating Samoan men carrying the coffin that day, though he didn’t look like he weighed much – probably the coffin weighed more than him. Not to mention lugging up all that cement and sand and water to construct the tomb. No helicopter in those days.
After the visit, waiting for the bus to take me back to town I got to talking to a local and told him where I’d just been. Without prompting he told me that fourteen of the hardest prisoners on the island – murderers, rapists with life sentences – were seconded for the job. It took them a day and night and part of the next day to get the coffin up there. By the time they got to the top his corpse was smelling pretty high (Samoans don’t flinch over such graphic detail in the telling). When this was completed – and I presume this includes digging the grave and constructing the tomb - they were all granted a free pardon. I guess this was the only way the powers-that-be could effect Stevenson’s last wish – to be buried on top of Mt Vaea.
Another thing worthy of note is that in some way RLS supported the Samoan rebellion against their German colonisers, during which several chiefs were imprisoned. As a token of their gratitude they set about building a road to RLS’s house which they called Road As A Token Of Our Loving Gratitude. A plaque at the head of this road with this dedication was officially unveiled by Walter Nash (there are a number of signs of NZ’s association with Samoa).
Retirement and Childhood: Taupo and Oruanui
For a moment I felt it, here amongst the raw people,
Here amongst the laughter and the talk,
Lonely, miserable at times, Rowley loved company and was considered a very good dancer. These lower depths were sometimes leavened by the praise and support of other writers. In Wellington for instance, he told me he was ‘adopted’ (for example, singled out for praise at local writers’ gatherings) by local PEN members such as Joan and Russell Reed after his arrival in the city as a fresh, young writer in their midst.
The ‘Woollen Mill’ poem is dated 1959 in the Selected Poems. Rowley would pick up this theme of ‘rawness’ again in his memorable 1962 poem ‘The Raw Men (for the Maori Battalion)’ (Selected Poems, pp.88-91) from which the extracts below have been drawn:
Yes, this is where they came from, the raw men
From the bush covered hill slopes, they came;
‘The Raw Men’ is a tribute to the men of a generation before Rowley’s, the generation who had formed the core of the Māori Battalion, who had come home to continue a battle, this time as the core of the working class in post-war Aotearoa. In his poem ‘Flesh and Blood (p.84), Rowley encounters this same ‘rawness’ in the contemporary Aotearoa of 1965. The first part of the poem tells how he is tired of listening to academic talk about ‘the Māori,’ and then he leaves Wellington and . . .
...one night on my way north, travelling late,
The poem ‘Maori in Suburbia – I’ (p.79) offers a kindly but satirical glimpse of Māori transplanted to the Pākehā paradise of the suburbs, a world where all ‘rawness’ has been eliminated. But the poem concludes with a vision where the man mowing his lawn on Saturday morning recalls the past:
Visions of childhood flash through his mind.
5 September 2001
A stand-in teacher - young, handsome, blonde-haired and invalided from the war – also read to us that gem of a poem by Hillaire Belloc, ‘Miranda’ which described young muleteers who didn’t have a penny and weren’t spending any / the tedding and the spreading of the straw for a bedding / the hip-hop lap and the clap of the hands / of the girls come dancing, prancing, backwards and advancing evoking a rawness and spontaneous passion that was closer to me than anything I’d read before. Was this in 1944? Before my life was blighted? I don’t know why this teacher stayed for only a short time. I guess there must have been a shortage of teachers during the war? Whatever, we kids were broken-hearted when he left. In our own ways we’d fallen in love with him. Me certainly because he never raised his voice, never used violence, never strapped us – a common practice among teachers then. Never screamed at us as others did. I’ve often wondered what became of him. Did he marry? Have children? He must’ve only been in his early or mid twenties. Of course knowing he’d been invalided from the war gave him a tragic aura. We never did know what it was but suspected shell-shock.
11 February 2008
Stayed in Tapu, in a caravan in the camping ground. Loved it there, cosy and private in my caravan. Long walks along roads up into valleys, into hills and bush and along the coast road. It was there that I discovered I had a hobby. I’d walked about six kilometres heading towards Thames and seeing a man sitting on a rock fishing, climbed up to join him. When I told him I’d walked there from Tapu after he’d asked me where I’d come from, he said, walking’s your hobby then. It wasn’t a question so much as a statement. Till then I’d not regarded walking as a hobby. How can it possibly be when all I do is put one foot in front of the other and keep going & going & going!? Enjoying the sensation of motion. Enjoying the senses. Out in the open - wide open spaces. Space (freedom) all around me. Drinking in the sounds, sights, smells. My thoughts stimulated to a higher pitch.
InterviewThe self-portrait on the cover of Pikipiko Blues and The Raw Men: Selected Poems I drew either when I was at Ardmore Teachers College or not long after I left in 1954, the year I began writing. Until I’d been bitten by the writing bug, my creative gift had manifested itself in drawing, painting etc. I was the Head of the Ardmore Art Department’s prodigy that year. He had high hopes for me as an artist, inviting me to work with him in the evenings when he was working on his own paintings. (His name was Phil Barclay, he was an exhibited painter). For about three years after I tried to keep my writing and art going together but finally decided I was stretching my talent toooo thin. It was around the time ball-point pens were invented and made writing much easier – whereas art required paints, easel, chisel, all I needed to write was an exercise book and a pen.