David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)
VI – A Conversation with Rob Jackaman
Down every cul-de-sac a chrysalis;
making glistening tracks like
iced-up paths; …
a party’s going on, where sausages
huddle, drying corpses
in the coffins of their rolls.– Rob Jackaman.
Rob Jackaman was born in England in 1945, and came out to New Zealand in 1968. He moved to Christchurch in 1972, where he lectures in the English Department at Canterbury University, specialising in modern poetry and creative writing. He has published numerous books of poetry and criticism:
- Arthur the King. Underoak Press, 1975.
- Hemispheres: Poems 1965-73. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1976.
- Lee: A Science Fiction Poem. Underoak Press, 1976.
- Hiroshima Poems of Sankichi Tôgé. Tokyo: Sanyu-Sha, 1977.
- Creative Writing / Creative Reading. College Press, 1977.
- The Suffolk Miracle. Underoak Press, 1978.
- Shaman and Charlatan: Poems since 1973. Cicada Press, 1981.
- Solo Lovers; Three Sequences of Poems. Sydney: South Head Press, 1982.
- Palimpsest: A Historical Sequence of Poems. Canada: Quarry Head Press & Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1988.
- The Course of English Surrealist Poetry since the 1930s. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.
- Triptych: Three Sequences of Poems. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1989.
- Distances. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1992.
- A Study of Cultural Centres and Margins in British Poetry since 1950: Poets and Publishers. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.
- Buried Ships. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1997.
I could see at once that there would be no awkward silences here, as Rob Jackaman greeted me, supplied me with a mug of coffee, and then led the way out into his garden. When people familiar with his work come to see him (he remarked) they expect ‘someone thin and tall and pale and sepulchral’ to match its rather grim, dark character. Instead, they find him ‘cheerful and jolly – quite sickeningly so.’
My perception of Christchurch is that we lead a pretty sheltered life – I sometimes think of it as the old folks’ home on the hill. Perhaps even more sheltered than that. It really is a garden spot. I have this silly hobby – I photograph railways in third world countries, and every time I get back from Beijing or Jakarta, I think how deserted and green it is here.
When I was first in New Zealand I was in Auckland – I thought it was dynamite then, but now I enjoy Christchurch more. It doesn’t have high profile attractions; I don’t think it seriously pretends to be a big city, unlike Auckland and Wellington.
I asked if he felt there really was a group of Christchurch poets, or if it was just a convenience for cataloguers.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that there is a group, but it’s not organised as a meeting of like minds or like styles. I certainly don’t think we write in the same sort of way, nor do I detect a provincial or regional feel to it. After all, we get Sky TV too! At times, one must admit, it can get kind of cliquey: ‘We’re an embattled species; we don’t get much funding; we’re on the fringe; there’s a political bureaucracy, a metropolitan Mafia who are keeping us down!’ Personally, I feel that we’re healthily neglected here.
As far as your own writing is concerned, has living in Christchurch had a big effect?
I don’t think it has, really. Of course, there must be some influence. I go up to Cass quite often, and because I come from Suffolk, the mountains here just blow me away. I’ve probably picked up a few images from that – there’s a kind of local landscape painting, but in my own work it’s usually coupled with something quite different.
On the one hand I look at myself as a comfortable suburban dweller, as I sit in my garden and look at my grapevine (which is not ripening again). On the other hand there’s a starkness in the New Zealand landscape: it’s so big and it’s so empty, and I find that enormously interesting and stimulating. The plains don’t register much with me – they’re as flat as where I come from.
Do you see your role at the university and your role as a poet as contradictory?
I see the Arts community and the university as two separate things that should complement one another. If I had my way the university, artistic and local literary worlds would all be intimately related, and I’ve tried to do as much towards that in my own way as I can. I’ve always been temperamentally and politically an anarchist – maybe because I’m a coloniser myself!
What poetry electrifies you?
Karl Stead was my Ph.D. supervisor, and he told me ‘You’ll always be an English poet because you were born and brought up there,’ but I don’t know if I agree with that. Twentieth-century English poetry always seemed to me very safe and very local and anally retentive next to Americans like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. I always felt closer to them. I’m very interested in the West Indian British poets, who write using new creoles and variants within English – that genuinely excites me. A new Ian Wedde poem, or one by Allen Curnow. He must be one of the most exciting poets alive: An Incorrigible Music. What a great volume!
There used to be a belief – almost an expectation – in American poetry in the 60s or 70s that a poet could not grow old in such a philistine, insensitive, materialistic society. Can a poet grow old in New Zealand?
Oh, I think so. It’s so pleasant living here, you want to keep on doing it. You have to remember, too, that English poetry, just like New Zealand poetry, is still, in a sense, in its first generation. There’s been such a huge watershed. We’ve moved into a post-modern period which is truly epochal. Mass communications have transformed the world of text; the rise of feminism has transformed society. We’ve changed all the premises so much that we’re all really starting from scratch.
from Garden: Apes Road
grieving: when you hear the rain on the roof
and the leakinggutter you dream green
though the sky may bebroody
as a Lightnin' Hopkins guitarbreak
and sparks on the edges of leavesopen
a path down the lightwhere the weather
and seasonsslide. This is
our life passing us bybut it's
the way it moves and jumps/the termini
turning outonly intermediates
not evenmeans (though mean
and fallin auburn
In a manner of speaking I expect I don't
(off the record) - but won't you
take my word for it anyway? Perhaps
I could tell you a story of mighty giants
swinging through the trees down Totara Street.
I think at least we could pretend, that being
the standard survival mechanismround
here. Is it stretching things too far to see
King Kong cavorting across Cherry Hinton's
immaculate lawns (after all, we were much
hairier those days)? I admit it, glibly, I've been
lying: first there's forgetting, then re
ing then grieving
then there's the big
finish which isn't any of those things (and
may turn out to benot very big).
Complete with Instructions. Edited by David Howard. ISBN 0-473-07646-2 (Christchurch: Firebrand, 2001): 47-48.
Complete with Instructions (2001)