Monday, 25 February 2013

The 'eminently buyable' Family Songbook

It was one of those 'Can't beat Wellington on a good day' days last Thursday when John Newton's third book of poetry, Family Songbook, was launched at the Stout centre by Mark Williams. Attendees spilled out into the hall and onto the sunny deck from the packed room. We enjoyed Mark's launch speech so much we convinced him to share it with you all below:

A study in poetic contemplation.

Reading John’s new book, Family Songbook, carried me back nearly thirty years to his first book, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado, published by Untold Books’ Simon Garrett, who showed what could be done in Christchurch in those faraway days. Family Songbook and Tales speak to each other in several ways. They are the same size, have almost the same number of pages, are both elegantly simple in design, and they both channel a poetics of place tied to childhood, the South Island, Canterbury, Marlborough, the landscape seen through the haze of the odd joint as well as its painters, poets and sportswriters.

John is a parsimonious author when it comes to publication. The value of this slow delivery shows in the way so many of the poems in the 1985 book have stood the distance and remain vigorous, slightly out of reach, full of sinewy phrases knotted together from odd sources. This from ‘The Chicken Factory’:

huff and steam till the culture’s

polythene seal turns hot to the touch
promising friable, worm-purple dirt by the barrowload.

The poems in Family Songbook are less compact than those in The Angler’s Eldorado, the voice less tightly reserved–almost relaxed. And there is direct expression of emotion, as in ‘Small Farmers’ where the bully of the school dorm, Frank, gets an enraged stanza all to himself. ‘Small Farmers’ is a poem I have heard before. John read it to a second year NZ literature class at Victoria a couple of years back. At the time I was disconcerted, shocked even, by the poem’s directness and personal animus. Why was the poet stepping so nakedly into the light? At this distance I am grateful that he has stepped out, as it were, capable both of righteous indignation and of light humour.

I love the poem ‘Small Farmers’ for its unlikely combination of dog-dosing strip and Apollo 11, for the sudden slip in register from listening to ‘Red Rubber Ball’ to noting something is wrong with the neighbours, for the attention to ordinary exchanges and sympathies—to ‘small, kind things’ in an often brutal world. I like the heroic literary discovery of Barry Crump in the boy’s world: ‘so this was reading!’ And the disappointment of the actual man—the back-country man of letters—on a school visit.

Another poem, ‘Great Days in New Zealand Painting’, has one of those John Newton titles like Tales of the Anger’s Eldorado or ‘Trout Fishing and Sport in Maoriland’ that take us back to a curious literary source, in this case, I assume, Alan Mulgan’s Great Days in New Zealand Writing. They push at that literary filtration of nature and the country we find in the splendid ‘Opening the Book’, where Baxter’s ‘mountains crouch like tigers’ between us and the landscape. But in ‘Great Days’ the river named for Matthew Arnold is now ‘soaked like stewed tea in the gruel of the Grey’ and ‘back in the scenic zone’ we meet ‘a worshipper!/In ten-gallon hat and psychedelic lederhosen’

This is a terrific book, full of the cadences of country music, of leisured and weighty memory of fishing, guitar plucking and smoking and of beautifully tight images like that of hay bales ‘broadcast over the prairie/like megalithic knucklebones’.

In between Tales and Family Songbook there has been just one book of poems, Lives of the Poets, which appeared in 2010. He’s speeding up, perhaps because he is no longer an academic, especially one at poor old Canterbury University. But I’d happily wait another twenty years for something as beautifully fitted together and as full of verbal energy and surprise as this eminently buyable book.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Ian Wedde on the Springbok tour, posties, and the Wellington Media Collective

In 1981 at the height of the anti-Springbok rugby tour protests I was working as a postie in Wellington, out of the Kilbirnie branch. Like many mail delivery depots, the place was full of sports people. One woman, Gina Weber, was the star pitcher for the White Sox (subsequently 2000 Olympian, 2011 ISF Hall of Fame). Another, Debbie Leonidas, was a top soccer player who represented New Zealand internationally in the Football Ferns. Debbie’s husband, not a postie, was also a top soccer player with a base in the Wellington Greek club CYFC, subsequently Olympic AFC (‘The Greeks’). There was a keen club rugby player called Bruce, and an especially fanatical water polo guy, Malcolm, who played for Maranui. The mail-sorting room was evenly split between those who opposed the rugby tour and those who supported it. Not all the pro-tour posties were sports people – Debbie was strongly opposed, but her Greek husband was pro. Bruce, the rugby guy, was pro, the water polo fanatic Malcolm was anti. There were big arguments in the mail room, and reports came in of strife in peoples’ homes as well, and strife in club rooms and during weekend sports fixtures. The strife spilled out of the sorting room into the street – Debbie’s husband tried to run me down once in the post office car park. On a couple of occasions some of us zoomed into town to join protest rallies; I remember one by the Basin Reserve when the club rugby player Bruce showed up in an anti-anti tour crowd that was lobbing water-filled balloons at the protesters – he biffed one straight at me and next day at work asked me if I was ‘still wet’.

I think it was Debbie Leonidas who put up the Wellington Media Collective’s anti-tour poster in her sorting booth. It was the one with a clenched fist and the caption ‘Support Black Liberation Now’. I now know it was one of Dave Kent’s designs. Someone tried to take it down; Debbie stuck it back up. The smoko arguments diverted to ‘black liberation’. What did that have to do with playing rugby? A couple of the pro-tour faction made their own posters and stuck them up. One featured a make-over of Dave Kent’s design with the clenched fist performing a sexual act and the caption ‘Poofter’. Our long-suffering supervisor took it down and banned all posters thenceforth.

Our mail-sorting depot was a little microcosm of New Zealand society in 1981. Our arguments were repeated all over the country. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that WMC posters became the foci around which this, and many subsequent arguments and discussions took place. They weren’t just rallying those already committed to the causes they espoused, they were also challenges. They challenged their opponents, but they also challenged their supporters to act. Being able, now, to review the full range of WMC work over two decades, I’m astounded at how often this extraordinary body of work, and its immense range of causes, implies innumerable social foci of engagement and argument like ours at the Kilbirnie post office in 1981.

The book We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978–1998 covers a wide range of the Collective’s products, and the issues and stories associated with them. But one theme binds this diversity together: the resolute collectivism of the Collective’s members and also of the wider circle of associates and clients. The project that has resulted in this book is itself an example of such collectivity. Planned and executed as a three-part project, it has assembled and documented as complete an archive as possible of WMC posters, now cared for by the National Library of New Zealand; it has exhibited a selection of the work at the Adam Art Gallery (the exhibition will subsequently tour); and now the project concludes with a substantial published discussion and visual record of this organisation’s contribution to heated discussion in Aotearoa New Zealand. This couldn’t have happened without the participation of many people: the Collective’s members, staff at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Victoria University’s Museum Studies department, curatorial staff at the Adam Art Gallery, the writers and editors, the book’s co-publishers Victoria University Press, and those who made financial contributions. As well as concluding a comprehensive piece of work, a collective project, this book also represents or even in a sense contains many hours of intense discussion. A silence doesn’t fall at this stage; this is not a quiet book. I expect the discussion contained in We Will Work With You to continue, with the book as its provocation – as Debbie’s WMC poster was back in 1981.

I have to finish by recording the fact that Bruce, the club rugby player, subsequently joined the protesters. Of course he changed his own mind – but the arguments at Kilbirnie probably had something to do with it. Debbie’s husband, not so much. That’s how it goes.

Ian Wedde

Victoria University Press, Wellington Media Collective and the Adam Art Gallery warmly invite you to the launch of the book We Will Work With You Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998, at the closing of the exhibition. Saturday 9th February, 4pm at the Adam Art Gallery.