Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Five Questions for Fleur Adcock

The Land Ballot tells an emigration story which is also a story of New Zealand in the early 20th century ('dry’ regions, poverty, hard manual labour, the ‘cursed’ blocks of land). Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell for some time? 
The idea of writing poems about my father's early life at Te Rauamoa crept up on me very slowly. I'd written about it at great length in my family history, but wasn't sure whether it would be of any interest to other people. Years ago I wrote a poem about the bush fire, the most dramatic event of his time there, but I was involved in other projects and that went no further. Then early in 2012 I suddenly began to realise what an extraordinary story it was: two people from Manchester with their 10-year-old son travel to the other side of the world to turn themselves into dairy farmers; they have no farming experience; they arrive at the beginning of a war, are unable to buy land in the normal way because of currency restrictions and other problems, take their chance in a ballot and after several vain attempts find themselves with 150 acres of untouched native bush halfway up a mountain. It dawned on me that this was a variation on a classic NZ experience, one with which other people might well be able to identify.

What are the attractions of using poetry to tell this story, rather than prose?
Once I'd begun writing I couldn't stop. To use poems rather than prose meant I could see the events in a series of snapshots, sometimes visually (looking at actual photographs), sometimes in the voice of my father himself, sometimes in extracts adapted from the local newspapers and sometimes simply in my imagination, trying to think myself back into that vanished community and totally altered landscape. I wrote in no particular order, and then had to slot poems into what seemed like appropriate positions in the sequence. I was greatly helped by a wonderful if unassuming little booklet celebrating the Te Rauamoa School Jubilee and containing a hand-drawn map of where everyone lived. I wandered mentally up and down those rugged, stony, rough clay mountain tracks day after day.

What resource material did you have to draw on?
My chief resource was my father's reminiscences, which my son Andrew and I had recorded in a long session of interviews and subsequently transcribed. I also had boxes of other documents, papers and photographs: fortunately my grandfather Sam was a hoarder and kept such things as his passport, his few diaries, his firearms licences, and an amazing find: a bundle of glass negatives which I had never seen printed off. I saw young Cyril, my father, sitting on his first horse in about 1915. But Sam had kept no personal letters from his family in England, apart from innocuous postcards; I had to reconstruct certain traumatic events from what I had learnt here and there over the years. My grandmother Eva and her family were not great letter writers, but I heard a certain amount about her from her younger cousin back in England and from her daughter-in-law, my mother. I'm an obsessive researcher, and had unearthed huge amounts of factual material, but gossip is a great resource. And of course I knew these people; anything I learned could be measured against my memories of them.

I also had the good fortune to be writing at a time when quantities of early New Zealand newspapers are available online. The Waipa Post is not yet among them, but I was able to access it through libraries. Imagine my delight, sitting in the National Library in Wellington, to discover that at the age of 12 my father had played the part of Aladdin in the school play!

The narrator reminds the reader throughout the poem that she only has what information has been given ‘But what do I know? Only what he told us,/and what Sam wrote in that pocket diary.’ Was there a fine balance to be measured between fiction and reimagining? Do you see these as the same thing or not at all?
I sometimes wonder what his reactions would be to this exercise of prying into his life. As I say in one of the poems, ‘there was a line called Trespass, not to be crossed’ (although I've tiptoed over it more than once). I've used his own descriptions of such things as making fences, driving the buggy, and taking his small cousins to school on the back of his pony, but here and there I attribute words to him which he didn't actually utter into that tape recorder; for example, the quotations about milk are taken from English poems that he might well have read at school, but not from his own speech.
What is the poetry scene in the UK like now? Is there a scene? Do you feel a part of it?
As for the poetry scene in England, it is full of vigour and enthusiasm, buzzing with live events: readings, festivals, competitions and publications. I don't get asked to do as many readings as in the old days – there are hundreds of younger poets for organisers to draw on – but I'm still involved. This is where I feel at home as a writer.

The Land Ballot is published by VUP, p.b, $30. 
Available for purchase at our online bookstore here, and in all good bookstores nationwide.

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