David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)
III – A Conversation with John Allison
within the void
you I– John Allison
John Allison lived in Lyttelton for many years. He has recently relocated to Melbourne, where he continues to work as a teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School. His books include:
- Dividing the Light. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1997.
- Both Roads Taken. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1997.
- Stone Moon Dark Water. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1999.
Are you from here originally?
Well, almost my whole adult life I’ve been here, in Christchurch, but I was actually born in Blenheim. My father was a surveyor, which got me used to geological references from a very early age! I used to spend a lot of time in the field with my father; we travelled around a lot: Invercargill, Te Anau, Gisborne, Rotorua. He retired in Nelson, and I came down here to Teacher’s College. I’ve been here, in Lyttelton, for about twelve years.
Are you a Christchurch poet?
It’s rather a funny term. I have a theory that my friend David Howard and I really think of ourselves as Central European poets. I’ve had this very strong interest in Central European art, music, and culture for twenty, twenty-five years. For instance, I think Rilke is perhaps one of the greatest image-makers of all time. Though they don’t translate well, I have a particular passion for the German Romantics – Novalis especially.
Is that a way of becoming an alien to the English language?
No, not really, though it is about alienation, of some part of oneself separating out … Or is it solitude? We come back to this Christchurch poet business. You’ll find sea and basalt, rock and gulls, and tussock landscape in my work. I think that despite being a person who’s somewhat philosophic, my visual landscape is quite delimited: I’m an east coast rather than a west coast poet, a coastline rather than a mountain poet, and an open spaces rather than a bush poet. As with the Romantic poets, I need to find a place where the issues are laid out, as it were. I don’t think of myself as a camera. I’m always treating the human consciousness which inhabits this landscape.
Just your own consciousness?
In the first place it's usually mine. I've been accused of being a solipsist. But there is an awareness also of Presence in nature, both comforting and challenging. The German Romantics had a clearer sense of this than the English, although Wordsworth senses it in that celebrated passage in The Prelude where he steals a boat... What I can say about this is, I've felt more afraid in the New Zealand bush than in the Black Forest or the New Forest. There's nothing comforting about the bush here – it is elemental. I think I'm always stunned by its beauty, its awe-ful immensity. In that sense, I’d say I’m quite impressed by the way the world looks: by the art of the world, whatever formative element there is in our world which creates such forms … Goethe said, ‘The person who is moved by Nature turns to its most worthy imitator, Art.’
I think it may be because I live in a place like this that I’m not an urban poet. The imagery of the street doesn’t really appeal to me.
Do you see that as a limitation?
It’s just a fact. I’ve tried to write those sort of things: an old man fossicking in a rubbish bin in Cashel street, but it didn’t really work. I just tend to respond rather directly to what’s in front of me. I still look at things with a certain sense of wonder: if not always in love with the world, fascinated by it.
Many people take the attitude that poetry is not a real job unless you make money out of it. Do you find that it complements or conflicts with your other profession?
They’re rather competitive, actually. Teaching is quite demanding. When term starts the amount of writing I do diminishes. I do insist on spending one hour a day with poetry, though, whatever else is happening. But most of it does get done in the holidays.
I’ve had mixed success with this question, but I’d like to ask you where you think your poetic project is going?
Well, I don’t know. I do set myself goals generally in my life. At a certain point I was concerned about getting recognition of some sort, whether as a writer or in my profession. I decided I’d like to get something accepted every month, then twice a month. I did that. Then it was every fortnight. Now I’m averaging an acceptance every ten days. At the moment I seem to be in a phase where I’m writing fairly steadily. It’s been like that for two years. But I do feel I haven’t written my best poem yet.
When I feel off-centre with myself, I tend not to be able to write. I have to be feeling quite good about myself. With my mind destabilised the focus goes too far away.
Do you think of a possible audience when you write?
No. I think I simply want ‘to say.’ I speak my poems aloud all the time as I write them. Uttering something to the great world is important, though. If I’m aware of another, that other is often myself. I frequently use the second person, like Apollinaire: I’m addressing myself, which gives the sense of another, but that other is in my way of thinking. I’m talking to someone who’s already of my mind. My awareness of the reader is more on the level of crafting the poem to be understood.
Would you like to be seen as the High Priest of the tribe, or just as a human being?
You mean am I interested in making pronouncements? Hell, no! I have enough trouble with that as a teacher. In my work I’m more interested in beauty than wisdom. I want beauty of expression, a sensuous rich sound and visual texture. I don’t think I’ve got anything new to say, as such – maybe I want to find still another way of saying it …
The reason I write is because there’s something which compels me to try and say what is essentially unsayable. One wants to create the hope that somewhere within the locality of the poem it could occur: that kind of recognition, that fusion reaction.
I think that when I was younger I was more concerned about what I was saying. Now I would like any ideas about my ideas to come from the body of my work – that’s where I’d like the meaning to arise, too. A lot of us have only one thing really to say. Perhaps at a certain point we simply start to repeat ourselves. I think I’ve already said a lot of the things I have to say, so I don’t have to say them anymore.
Sometimes people say that one thing very early: Baxter’s "High Country Weather" is a poem it’s a bit hard to get past, even though he did a lot of amazing things later on.
I see that my first poem, at eighteen, was about dawn and light. I showed that poem to my father and he said: ‘Not bad, chum, but Omar Khayyam does it better. It doesn’t scan properly.’ I never showed him anything else after that.
Coming back to landscape, do you think Regionalism matters anymore as a debate?
Curnow talks about it, of course. Someone had written a letter to say that scarlet geraniums don’t grow on the wet banks where he’d put one in a poem. Curnow replied to the effect: ‘I am located in the particular. From where I am sitting I can see a scarlet geranium growing wild on a wet bank.’ I want to be located in that kind of particular. I know exactly what I’m looking at, and I think my concerns aren’t small regional concerns.
Language is generalising, of course. When you say ‘flower’ to people they supply their own image for it. I take it that it’s important for you that it be a particular flower?
Yes. I work a lot with sound. In one poem I needed a word with a lot of vowels. One flower had exactly the sound I wanted: the asphodel. I knew it would be very difficult to replace it, but I would have had to if it were wrong. When I’m trying to render something, I am concerned to go beyond the actual object itself, but I still have to struggle to find the exact word for the colour of the sea – not Atlantic grey, exactly, but …
So the criticism that would wound you most would be an accusation of factual error?
Yes, like Allen Curnow with the wet bank. I’ve written five stanzas about that particular hydrangea there, down the slope, and I would like everyone to verify how exact I’ve been. That’s how I justify my mysticism, my spiritual dimension.
The Buddha’s revelation takes place under a real Banyan tree?
Yes, in the end, I feel the centre is here. I’m writing the poem here, and it deals with just that. It’s got something to do with this thing of maker and craftsman. I’d like to be able to say something well.
Complete with Instructions. Edited by David Howard. ISBN 0-473-07646-2 (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 38-40.
Complete with Instructions (2001)