Bernadette Hall kindly shared her acceptance speech given at the Grand Hall in Parliament last week for her Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement. We would also like to congratulate Dame Joan Metge and Roger Hall on their Awards, both Dame Joan and Roger have published with Victoria University Press in the past.
1. e hara i te mea, no naianei te aroha, no nga tupuna, tuki iho tuku iho
At a moment like this it feels good to start with love. Love passed down from generation to generation. And language, language is also passed down.
2. We are great talkers in my family. My sisters and me. We can be raucous and outrageous when we get together. There’s a story: when I was about two and a half and living in Alexandra, there was a wall-paperer come in to do some work in the house. Finally he said to my dad that if I wasn’t removed from the room, he wouldn’t be able to keep on working because I just wouldn’t stop talking. My dad said, ‘Well, I’ll have to get another paperer then.’
3. There’s a story: my mother, one of the two most beautiful girls in Dunedin, so they say, working in the OK Café during the Depression. She didn’t have the chance of tertiary education. She and her friend Flo used to steal little slices of lemon cake, sliding them under an upturned cup on a saucer, taking the cup out the back, pretending they were going to do the washing. Mum and her family, the Nialls, had the tough, bracing, black humour my sisters and I call the black Irish humour.
I remember some of the sayings of the old aunts and uncles: a) if I’d done something that impressed them, they’d say ‘ why, you’re the girl your mother forgot to drown’. b) if they heard us complaining or whining about things, they’d say, ‘we’re doin’ right alright in this little land we stole from the Maoris.’ I suspect that only Irish Catholics would ever talk like that. c) If by accident you committed a rhyme when you were chatting away, Mum would cut in with ‘ she’s a poet and she doesn’t know it’. d) Dad died suddenly when I was fifteen. If my sisters and I were lazing around, not helping out enough, Mum would pull a face and full of mockery she’d quote Boxer, the draught-horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm: "I must work harder". We’d feel guilty even as we roared with laughter, galvanised into giving her a hand.
5. Alongside this kind of muscular language, there were the gorgeous elaborations of Church Latin and the Classics, Greek and Latin, which formed such a major part of my education. The plays and the poetry.
6. It took me a long time to entrust myself to my lady poetry: in 1971 I met Joanna Margaret Paul, teaching at St Dominic’s College in Dunedin; in 1972 I attended a poetry class run by John Dickson in Dunedin; in 1985 I had a first poem published in ‘Untold’ a magazine edited by Simon Garrett from Canterbury University; in 1989 there was my first book, from Caxton Press, edited by Michael Harlow. A very slender volume made beautiful by Joanna’s drawings. I thought I could hide behind them.
6. The American poet Wallace Stevens writes of the “rarities that the poet (and here I’d say the poem) can offer us: 'rarities which might / reconcile us to ourselves in those / True reconcilings, dark, pacific words, / And the adroiter harmonies of their fall' ”. There are people in this room who offer words like this – words that expand us when we read or listen to them. Essential words.
7. Thank you to Creative New Zealand, to Fergus, to Kathryn Madill and to my sister-in-law Tina Reid who opened her heart and her home to me in the years I worked in Wellington. My thanks and love to John – who would want to live with a writer!
I experience this award as an embrace and an invitation to go on …. working harder, as my mother would put it. I am truly thrilled and grateful.