David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)
IX – A Conversation with John O’Connor
I’ve had a most important vision about groups which is going to destroy the Church.– W. H. Auden
Joint winner of the 1998 Poetry Society International Poetry Competition, co-founder of Sudden Valley Press and co-organiser of the Canterbury Poets’ Collective, John O’Connor is one of Christchurch’s best-known poets. His poems have been widely published in periodicals and anthologies within New Zealand, Australia and America. His publications are:
- Laying Autumn’s Dust: Poems and Verse 1974-1983. Concept Publishing, 1983.
- Citizen of No Mean City: Poems and Verse 1983-1985. Concept Publishing, 1985.
- Too Right Mate (with Bernard Gadd). Hallard Press, 1996.
- As It Is: Poems 1981-1996. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1997.
- A Particular Context. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1999.
I’d like to start off with this idea of being located in a particular place. Have you travelled much outside New Zealand?
Well, yes: in Australia, the Pacific, Britain, Europe – and I’ve certainly written poems that reference those places. For me the concept of place, in a general sense, is what motivates a particular use of language. So they’re never quite the same as the overtly local work. That’s why I think it’s important to write about the country you live in – it’s being true to yourself, showing that it’s legitimate to write about here in the way that particular ‘here’ generates.
Does that mean that regional writing is the true writing?
It’s important to validate your time and place by writing about it, but unless you break out of that somewhere along the line you don’t bless it in the way Eliot does his own background in ‘Prufrock,’ or Glover does in ‘The Magpies’ – both are local and universal. Your home place is what creates you. If writers don’t write about what creates them, then we’re so much the poorer for it – Canterbury without Glover and Curnow and Bethell is quite simply unthinkable. You need people like that in your background to be able to conceptualise it. So sure, I like to, I need to, read about my own place, but I like to read about other places too.
When I read 30s and 40s work from Christchurch, I feel that they see themselves as naming the names, establishing a culture in a bare land. In the North, however, we’ve always worked with a kind of guilt – apologising for being appropriators.
Yes, our early poets were doing just that – that other attitude wasn’t part of their consciousness. To a large extent it still isn’t. It would be entirely false to import that North Island matrix of feeling and thought down here. Perhaps, in a sense, we in Canterbury are the inheritors of … I don’t want to call it a landscape tradition because of the connotations of that word – but a tradition which comes out of Sutton, Rita Angus, the Lovell Smiths. It’s possible for us because we’re intimate with the back country: we know the mountains, we know the rivers. When we travel through the country it is a spiritual experience. For me that’s what the drive from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass is.
I remember hearing Wystan Curnow calling that tradition Expressive Realism.
That’s not bad. C. K. Stead just refers to it as some sort of romantic landscape tradition: ‘South Island mountain romanticism,’ I think – which sounds a bit dismissive. Maybe it is romantic. It’s certainly subjective, but it’s not like J. M. W. Turner landscapes – that’s balls.
Are there many local references in your poetry?
My own has recently very consciously referenced Christchurch. I’ve been writing some sketches or cartoons from my early background – streets, racecourses, townships, local people.
I notice, in As It Is, that you grouped your own poems according to form rather than content.
That tends to be, roughly speaking, chronological. I feel that you can’t stay doing the same damn thing all the time, but the poems still have to come from where you are and what you’re experiencing. Canterbury finds its way into those poems – but everything else you read, or see, or hear about is also part of your experience, and that finds its way in too. The unusual things, the unique things we have going for us here are Canterbury and Christchurch.
Could you characterise Christchurch, in particular, for me?
If Auckland’s a small city, Christchurch is more like a town – it doesn’t have that sense of compression. People walk more slowly here …
And the bus-drivers have conversations with you …
We’re a farm service town. There’s still something of that here. It’s more countrified. Mind you, it’s got all sorts of more negative things, too, but it is relatively easygoing. You’re more likely to be helped by a passer-by here. That won’t work up north unless you’re extremely good-looking! The North Island towns are a bit more like cities.
Is it a comfortable place to be a poet?
No, not particularly. That applies to all of New Zealand, but Christchurch a bit more so than other places, I think. It hasn’t got a great deal of time for things cultural.
People here would be hard put to it to name the local poets?
Most of them couldn’t name any poets. Sam Hunt, perhaps; just possibly Allen Curnow or Bill Manhire. The other day I was talking to a guy who thought James K. Baxter Place was named after a prime minister. When I told him otherwise, he looked blankly at me. He’d be a fairly typical Christchurch person.
I’m afraid I came down hoping for a garden city, with sponsored readings and lots of support …
’Fraid not. The class divisions of the city have an effect here too. At the moment you’re sitting on the divide – go a few blocks west and they’ll patronise you, a few blocks east and they’ll mug you. The east doesn’t give us too many poets: to have the confidence to write well, let alone read a poem in public, you’ve got to have a lot of balls or a fair amount of education.
When you think of yourself as a poet, do you have a private mythology, a sense of your self that you project?
Ah. I don’t know about that. Maybe it’s more important to think of the audience you’re writing for. It really depends on the kind of poem it is. With the series I’m doing at the moment, clearly the main character is me – I’ve kept the truth. These pieces cover the brutality of the Irish diaspora, the hypocrisy of the clergy, and so on. But it isn’t a myth of me and them, it’s just how it was, as close as I can give it. The only things I’ve changed are people’s names – not to protect them, but because it somehow made writing the poems easier – maybe gave me more distance.
What are your main influences? Clearly Glover’s one of them.
No, he’s not. I don’t know why people should assume that he is. I admire him, but he’s had no influence on me at all. At most he might have given another layer of meaning …
It’s because you mention him on the back of your latest book!
Fair enough. No, the most consistent influence would be the American haiku movement, probably up to about five years ago. Early on there was Pound. I find I still have to write him out of my poems at times. I’ve found haiku and renga very useful ways of getting away from European models. Early on I wrote free verse and (more successfully) satire, but it was fairly verbose, more a bludgeon than a rapier. The haiku tradition was good discipline for me – it helped me get some precision in.
Pound didn’t write haiku, but he could give the same sense of purging. Pound can crap on an awful lot, but at his best he’s very clipped. Another thing I demand in poetry is a broad range – you have to look at what at what people are doing and why before you judge it. One critic told me that if it doesn’t have a relationship in it then it’s not a poem. I want a bit more variety than that. That’s one thing I like about poets like C. K. Stead and (especially) Eliot: there’s constant change.
His conversation was full of colourful asides: Olson was ‘as mad as a bloody rat;’ you could observe the upper-classes ‘wetting the seats at some of the so-called comedies in our live theatres;’ the locally-filmed television shows Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess were ‘pure drivel, but captivating;’ however good Baxter and Dylan Thomas were, ‘there’s a sense of the egotistical wanker about them.’ It seemed compounded of precision and profanity in roughly equal measures. I gained the impression of someone who wouldn’t back off a dispute – but equally, who didn’t want a chance remark to make an unintended enemy.
Complete with Instructions. Edited by David Howard. ISBN 0-473-07646-2 (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 57-59.
Complete with Instructions (2001)