Poets have bookended my writing life. Poet Rob Hack told me to keep it short the night before my March book launch on The Plot to Kill Peter Fraser at Unity Books in Wellington. Poets are mostly committed to brief, I am a wordy smith. Well, I kept the speech shorter than the five drafts of the speech, and in the brain-fade process forgot to get into the influences on my writing. Just as well, a launch should be about the book.
In 1960 I went to Teachers College in Wellington for want of any other ideas of what to do for a living. First mandatory task was to join a club. I was not into gymnastics or pottery, I liked reading, so I joined the Lit (short for Literary) Club. It was run by poet Anton Vogt, the nation’s poet James K Baxter a frequent visitor. One of the other members Ngaire Atkinson was happy to teach me the basics of how to write poetry. We repaired to a coffee bar in Willis Street after our classes, where everybody seemed to be a poet. One of the best-known was Dave Mitchell, who spent hours trying to coach me in writing poetry, as well as playing centre outside me; Dave would have been a great rugby player if he had had contact lenses.
Dave pointed me across the road to Penguin Bookshop, replaced by Unity Books in the late sixties, to expand my reading with the likes of Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso, a slim volume I still have. Dave named me Deadcat after a poem I wrote about a dead cat, and that is still my nickname, at least to Roger Boshier, a fellow student then, now a professor of adult education in Vancouver. My email address is the nearest unregistered domain Telecom allowed to deadcat, namely email@example.com
At the end of 1960 I was in the college poetry publication between James K Baxter and Dave Mitchell. The next year I published my own book of poetry, dedicated to Anton Vogt despite or because my father objected he was a proponent of free love. I employed a printer, sold enough copies in Cuba Street to cover my costs. I liked town more than gown and became a journalist.
After a stint overseas I returned with lively clothes and no plans to do anything other than feature writing. That all changed when I saw the concrete trough of the motorway that had tsunamied so many elegant old wooden houses. I was incensed but retained a schooled view of history as boring until I read James McNeish’s Tavern in the Town, which used dialogue, colourful character descriptions and impressionistic writing to bring old pubs alive. This was like Dickens, who had been a journalist like McNeish and, for that matter, me. I started a column in McNeish vein about the heritage houses left, which became my first book at the invitation of Ann Mallinson. Pat Lawlor’s review said its characters were embroidered with Dickensian skill. After that I had to keep writing books. I wrote commissioned books of Kiwi slang and social history for 10 publishers. My one venture into the poetry realm was a commissioned tome at the vulgar end, rude Kiwi limericks.
When Boshier and I visited our retired geography tutor Don Hounsell up Mangonui way, the only book he had of mine was my rude limericks. I made embarrassed murmurs about it being my worst effort, only reinforced by the Jonah Lomu limerick making the front cover of NZ Truth, the newspaper my father never allowed in the house.
Blow me down, a few years ago poet Mark Pirie asked if he could put a rude limerick of mine about Adam Parore/rhymes with Karori in an anthology of cricket poems which went global. None of my other writing had, apart from Ghost Towns of New Zealand sighted for sale at NZ House in London, no sales figures available. Then Mark wanted a football limerick, and recently a Beach Boys limerick. Amazing. A sort of poet/I can’t boast it.
‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ is etched above the entrance to the Easterfield Building at Victoria University of Wellington, whose portals I last passed under in 1961. I failed Geography One along with Roger, despite Don’s efforts. That was my last as well as first flirtation with science, it was back to the safety of word-spinning. All I recall of my year in Easterfield is this entry quote from poet Robert Browning. One way or another, poets have been the acknowledged legislators of this kind of man.
I did take Rob Hack’s advice with a short launch speech for my Fraser book at Paekakariki Railway Museum, alongside friend and Paekakariki poet laureate Michael O’Leary launching his collected poems, which included one he wrote for me about my hometown of Matata. The event was organised by my cousin and internationally published poet Mercedes Webb-Pullman. I live among poets. Paekakariki has golden hosts of them all year round.
Image of MO’L and me at joint launch