David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)
V – A Conversation with David Gregory
A part of the amusement they yielded came, I daresay, from my exaggerating them – grouping them into a larger mystery (and thereby a larger ‘law’) than the facts, as observed, yet warranted; but that is the common fault of minds for whom the vision of life is an obsession. The obsession pays, if one will; but to pay it has to borrow.– Henry James
Born and brought up in England, David Gregory emigrated to New Zealand 16 years ago. He works as a Coastal Planner for the Canterbury Regional Council. Co-founder of Sudden Valley Press, and a well-known poetry organiser in Christchurch, he has published two collections to date:
- Always Arriving. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1997.
- frame of mind. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1997.
How would you sum up Christchurch as a place?
Of the cities I’ve lived in, or been familiar with, it’s the one I’ve been able to encompass in my head. I had a certain experience of the plains early on when I arrived here. It’s not a landscape in the British sense – more like a landscape evolving, a land-form in transition, not yet emerging as an artefact. I guess that to a lot of New Zealanders the plains seem intolerably ordered, but not to me. I love the mountains because of their escape from order – you can pass from this dry side to subtropical rain-forest. I think it’s still possible to write about the landscape here without being too trite, too forced – the weather patterns, the Alps and the Port Hills behind you. On a clear winter’s day the Alps hurl themselves across the plain towards you. I’ve written quite a lot about the way that words can destroy the solitude, so that silence becomes a sort of rare species …
He went on to talk about a poem he had written about the different ways souls turn here – anticlockwise, like water going down a drain:
Yang of the South;
a Janus direction
where civilization thins
with rising altitude, speech
and welcome smiles
obvious on thin air …
I lean upon the wind.
The souls move anti-clockwise.
Had you written much before you came out here?
A scattering – but I used the opportunity of coming here to emerge as another person. When you emigrate you can die in one place and be reborn in the other. I told myself ‘I am going to be more disciplined from now on.’ That was sixteen years ago.
So you reinvented yourself as a writer? Do you consider yourself an English writer, or a New Zealand one?
I don’t feel colonised by any particular usage. What I write has been enriched and informed by being in New Zealand; the landscape certainly enters into it, too. I feel I have a distinctive enough voice now not to need to invent a vernacular of Kiwi speech, though I have played around with it. Those poems now seem a bit forced and unnatural to me.
Why does poetry still seem such an élitist and distanced thing to so many people?
Recently I gave a presentation to a Sixth Form class. I really wanted to engage them, so my first question was: ‘Who’s listened to any poetry at home in the last week?’ One person put up their hand. I then read out some lines from current hits – the Smashing Pumpkins, then Bob Dylan and some others. ‘Is that poetry?’ they asked. After that, they all put their hands up. Not only did they listen to poetry, they were eating it like McDonalds.
The appetite for language has to be filled. Is it that we’re only providing caviar?
Perhaps it’s too restricting in its devices. A lot of those young people would avidly read the sleeves of CDs. It wasn’t that they lacked the ability to see what the words were getting at. When I was at the writers week in Dunedin, I sat through a poetry performance at the Town Hall where there seemed to be compulsory attendance for schools. The performance poets – Cilla McQueen, Bub Bridger, David Eggleton – went down well, but when one of our more prominent academic poets (I won’t say who) came on, the young guy in front of me leant over to his female companion and said, ‘This sucks.’ I don’t mean that we should dumb down poetry, but maybe try for the right level to get people interested.
Together with John O’Connor, David is one of the organisers of the poetry readings run by the Canterbury Poets’ Collective.
There certainly is a problematic relation between poetry that works on the page and poetry which works – or entertains – in performance.
And you can see it in our readings. A lot of poets’ delivery is appalling. But we’ve been astonished at the level of attendance. We’ve had up to sixty or seventy people, and we’ve averaged forty or fifty. I have to say that John has been vital in that – his sheepdog approach to people, the way he has of going up to them and nipping their heels really keeps them going. And there are really marvellous new poets coming forward now. The trouble is, every time someone praises us for the job we’re doing, we feel like asking ‘How about you doing some?’
But basically, you would say that poetry is alive in Christchurch?
Yeah, the patient is doing remarkably well.
Complete with Instructions. Edited by David Howard. ISBN 0-473-07646-2 (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 44-46.
Complete with Instructions (2001)