new zealand electronic poetry centre


Alan Brunton

essays, interviews
Alan Brunton gets Jaamed

Editor Mark Pirie e-mails questions to which Alan Brunton responds. Originally published in JAAM 16 (October 2001).


Since you returned to Island Bay in Wellington, you’ve started a publishing house, Bumper Books. Tell us a bit about its formation, how it came about, who you’ve published, and what your intentions are with it?

Book production is another task to understand, a constant compromise between what you want and the realities of technical reproduction. Baudelaire slept under the actual press while it printed his books. What happened was six or seven years ago Rick Bryant asked if I knew his friend in Island Bay called Gordon Spittle. I did not but a few weeks later, I’m walking down the Parade one sunny afternoon and there’s a wiry character lurching towards me. I knew he had to be Rick’s friend. We leaned on a fence and just started talking about publishing books. This guy comes out of his house and starts his mower, he’s sick of us leaning on his fence. Gordon had a history of pop song-writing which was going to be our first book but APRA forced him to send it to GP. It came out as Counting The Beat.

Gordon had already published, as ‘gws’, a history of garage bands in Dunedin and a hashish handbook. It was one of those times something happens. The first books we got photocopied, the covers offset, and then we folded and glued them together. At one point, we were driving out to Naenae, to the lamination place, and then to Petone for the gluing. One garage after another, we were a garage brand. We have gotten more removed from actual production as our fortunes increase. We started to use couriers. Now we go to people who do everything. They are more expensive.

Do you solicit manuscripts or do you select from what is sent to you?

I ask charming people at parties, Do you have an idea for an essay or a script? As for poetry, I like wisdom to be attached, something thought-provoking; with swing, too. It’s not hard to get published in New Zealand. So many books … so much production, most of it unadventurous. Bumper is meant to get something started, tossing ideas like small change into the fountain of possibilities; then move on, head out for the de-territory. I like to publish what I like to read. For example, I regret the history of radical theatre in this country has not been written about much because it is an interesting story. In most cases, the audience is small and a business has to sell so many books. You accumulate debts if you are not frugal.

Two books Martin Edmond has written for us, Chemical Evolution and one we will do in October, Fenua Imi, have been both his wanting to write and me suggesting something I know he is expert about. He is a very elegant writer, one of the most confident around, I think. Though he lives in Australia. Jack Ross showed me his manuscript and I was knocked away; this crazy, obsessively sexual novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno, an echo in Auckland of Eco. Derrida and Baudrillard have both been to Auckland recently. People of this stature visit and where are they on TV? There must be a book, ‘3 Days with Derrida In Auckland – An Intimate Journal’. Who could write that? For two years I wanted to do the Brian Bell book and finally started it 4 October 2000, with an interview with Bell. Ten days later, he died. I went from the odd document he would release to five suitcases packed with his papers and amazing letters from people, David Mitchell, Sam Hunt, Hone Tuwhare … Gordon knew Anna Hoffmann from his research for another book. writing island bay is one of my favourites. I think our intentions are shown by our catalogue. I don’t believe I just said that. You know what I mean.

Your have also produced CDs and videos and have started a Songwriter Series, reprinting song lyrics by musicians such as Bill Direen, Rick Bryant and Charlotte Yates. This it seems to me is an ingenious move as few have brought out the link between popular culture and poetry as you have done here. What are your aims with this series, and will you print more essays about New Zealand music and its links with poetry here?

Thank you. The aim was to see what New Zealand we find in our songs, how the drive to ‘tell our stories’ impacted pop culture. I’m interested in how songwriters set out to construct a local imagination in a very short period of time. Bill Direen is interesting because he never quite decides who he is. He was strung out between Berlin and Paris but Gordon made a book for him he quite liked. Then it got complex; NZPost lost the copies we sent to Paris, do you reprint or not? Decisions above my pay-grade! There are more songbooks possible, but finance is tricky and, how much time do you have? The best-seller in the series is Barrie Saunders. The Charlotte Yates sells when she is in the news.

My own CD, 33 perfumes of pleasure, was a challenge to produce, you have to keep your eye on the meter! Then the shopkeepers did not know which bin to put it in. ‘Popular culture’ is still not a commercial category, even suspect, especially if spoken it seems. It was invented in the Sixties by marxist professors in Birmingham, and had much influence on my thinking once, books like The Usefulness of Art. The idea was to show how capitalism ruled the oppressed through manipulation of signs and media-control. Technology has also changed. Poetry still comes from the heart. In New Zealand, we don’t like to be exposed. Popular culture makes the vernacular. It’s like the choice Dante made, to write with a new style in the vernacular. I like those moments when the cracks appear. You know, you’re looking at the wall and suddenly … anyway, we started to make videos as an extension of our theatre work. They get more and more ambitious although they remain, because of the usual circumstances, low-budget. We want to make more fictions. It’s so hard to fund that stuff. Especially when you work outside of a control system. Or inside an institution. ‘Popular culture’ is the Te Papa line, you can see there how it has worked out in practice.

You’ve also published your own poetry. Is this because your writing style is out of the ‘mainstream’ here? Are there prejudices against your style?

To be honest, what I have been writing I don’t think other publishers see themselves publishing. I have made some radical detours, because I’ve kept myself free to do what I want. Why should I compromise? At the same time, I don’t want to disappoint the fans, I know most of them personally! My writing is one thing I do very well. Is there a ‘mainstream’ in a place too small to have an ‘alternative’? I have read prejudice against what I do and accusations of hyperbole. That’s okay, I am still an anarquista, out of step I guess. My writing is my own. Being close to the publication helps you imagine what you’re writing as a book. It’s very like making videos; it brings pre-production and post-production into the writing and the complexities are challenging. When I went into one bookshop this year, the owner snarled at me, ‘Not more of your poetry books?’ I left without opening my briefcase. I am a diffident salesperson.

Your collection Romaunt of Glossa explores the period you returned to New Zealand. Has it been difficult to fit back in to the scene here after a long absence in New York, especially as a former iconoclast. How has this affected your writing?

Romaunt of Glossa was walking through a rain cloud. I was attached to several places, New York where we had been part of a very intense scene, with people who had been legendary once, or would be. Nan Goldin took a great set of pictures of Sally and Deborah for one show. Jim Jarmusch scored in the street below our window. We were two years in New Mexico and then Europe. Red Mole came back here from Amsterdam with a gothic romance based on the last weekend of Heinrich Kleist, two people who find life so unendurable they make a suicide pact. It started from some graffiti in 1e Bloemdwarsstraat we learned later was from a song by The Smiths. So we were exploring some violent territory. We thought it was drôle but it was not what was happening here. Then theatre funding, though it increased through the 90s, completely lost the plot. What can you do? There seemed to be a failure of nerve just when imagination was needed a lot. When we came back, an old friend said to me, You missed everything. This can be a very surreal country. How many millions of dollars do New Zealanders send to post office boxes in Belgium and Thailand and Nigeria in finance scams they never see again? We fall for thieves.

In New York we had learned to survive, slowly going in the press from being ‘a New Zealand theatre group’ to ‘Lower Eastside experimental theatre group’. In New Mexico and Amsterdam, sometimes we did commissioned work for patrons. Back here, the only job we could get was teaching shadow-puppets to after-school care centres for the city council to hysterical eight-year-olds. We were blown backwards from one ‘lost decade’ into another. Some of our peers were fearful we had come back to take their jobs! We performed ‘writing island bay’ (work by Mansfield, Hyde, Duggan, Sutton-Smith) to audiences of twelve at the Island Bay Festival. But this was an important time for me. To be enfranchised in a locality. I read Ovid, when I read the classics. The journey from libertinage to exile. So, there’s a lot of Tristia in Glossa, though there are parts of it I no longer understand. As you suspect, returning was traumatic. I was often at a loss for what to do next. We did a large puppet-show about endangered animals of Cook Strait. The Listener review asked, Who cares about the environment?

Tell us a bit about how you came to write the long poem Moonshine on Ernest Rutherford. Do you have an interest in Science? I know of few poets besides Auden, for instance, who have been interested in Science and Physics.

Poetry is always written within a cosmogony. But the meaning of the universe and where it stops and starts are still matters of conjecture. The universe we live in is a work of art. The authentic poet knows this. Science is the way we imagine today, but that changes every day. For a while everything looks like Jurassic Park, then it’s something else. Physics is also very accessible. We know who Niels Bohrs was, and Heisenberg. The Rutherford material grew from a sketch-poem about scintillations in space. Then we lived in New Mexico, and in Amsterdam, and the only books in the library with a New Zealand connection were about Rutherford. Except in Taos, where the New Zealand section was one book, a translation by Rewi Alley of a Chinese poem. Which I translate again in Slow Passes.

The title was reinforced at the museum in Havelock, in Rutherford’s old school, where there is a still. The book was actually written while moving around. In New Mexico we lived below Los Alamos. You could still go to the café the makers of the atom bomb had frequented. Moonshine proposes that history was directed, not in any Hegelian sense, from the first fish to get up onto the Silurian beach towards the birth of Rutherford, in Brightwater. The last section is a myth-version of three month’s travel with Sally and Ruby in south France and Spain in 1988. It was all drafted by the time we got back here except for the Madame Curie figure which took a couple of years. When she was just right, Rutherford’s heavenly spouse, the poem was finished. In science, it would be called a groove, or a vibration. At the center of the book, there are atomic ‘scintillations’ – the Logos comes and it is ‘PSSSSSSSSSSST’, white lightning ... it is a comedy. A funny thing: a year after finishing Moonshine, I discovered a long poem by Douglas Stewart on Rutherford.

Your experience in theatre is a driving force behind your poetry. A lot of your poems are long and script-like, utilising the skills of a professional dramatist. Do you think this performance aspect has marginalised your poetry to those who read poetry for the ‘page’ only?

When you said ‘marg-’, I thought of Edmond Jabès’ Book of Margins, he imagines Mallarmé playing chess on a board that is all white. Jabès thinks poetry comes from silence, written down by someone reading lips. For me, the poet sits under a light. Then there is a sound and slowly you realise the poet is talking to you. Theatre comes after poetry; it follows, but includes, poetry. I think: curtains part, stage lights go up, someone starts talking and you say, Okay I’ll take the trip. After all this time, I can’t think of life as anything but theatre. I am a professional dramatist! It’s crazy the line between poetry and drama is still so disputed. The most significant theatre of the last forty years has been fragmentary, poetic, and often political—the influence of Brecht. I write scripts for performance, it’s the introduction of the second speaker; a speaker with a body! You can spend weeks at a level of passionate thought trying to keep a dialogue afloat, like sending e-mail to yourself. I can’t imagine who reads poetry for the page only, reducing poetry to silence. They should ask friends around and read the best bits aloud. The distinctions you imply between modes are historical, academic. It’s the same old song … but with a different beat … since … you know what I mean?

What do you think is important when you read your poems to an audience?

Everything. I’ve watched people who don’t even stand up to speak. We have learnt from Maori that we should. One problem we have too, is that our speech is changing, our vowels flattening as ‘a’ and ‘e’ occlude; it does not help us be musical. But the important thing is no matter how incoherent the poem seems when you look at it and then look up, there is some kind of logic you can follow through it. Not everything is important. Hold on to the islands in the abyss. Get through the moment when you think, I’m never doing this again. Don’t speed up. The pleasure of poetry is rhythm. People are there for something. You are making a delivery. Give them something to believe.

You recently attended the Colombian Poetry Festival in Medellin as an International Guest. Tell us a bit about your time in Colombia and the audiences you read to. How did your experience in Colombia differ from your experience reading poetry back home?

This was a total experience. There was Colombia and there was poetry. In the cities, there was paranoia and menace in the air but you adjusted to see through it. The Festival was completely organised. They took over a whole hotel. The readings were in public parks, cabarets, theatres, I read in a reggae club one evening with a Cuban poet, and in the main square one afternoon—these street peddlers came up saying, Poet, poet. For days afterwards, Bru-u-nton, Bru-u-nton when I walked in the street, because I was a poet. The last reading in Medellin was all 82 poets to 8000 people, it went on for five hours. The crowd never left. There were some mighty performers, building in a steady climax to the finale which was a poet from Chile who had been an intimate of Neruda’s. I spent time with Pedro Shimose from Bolivia, he had been a political prisoner and has lived in exile for twenty years; the Egyptian Nassar Nassar, Tobias Burghardt from Stuttgart and the Mexican Homero Aridjis, Anna Maria Rodas, Annemette Andersen. They flew me to one town for a reading which was just great, I had dinner with the president of the bank. The next day all flights out of there were cancelled. I couldn’t even call Medellin, well—you just have to relax. Incredible sound systems, taxis to salsa clubs, tango bars. All the newspapers covered it, and television. Incredible, yes … this year I was able to help get Katarina Kawana and Dean Hapeta there. They spent a lot of time at anti-globalistaion protests. It’s different from here, but I still get around. I read in the Nelson Public Library a few weeks ago.

In 2000, you edited Big Smoke, with Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott. Mostly this book has received favourable reviews, most noticeably from John Newton in Landfall. A few people have sniped at it for its ‘exclusivity’, seeing it as tending to favour the Auckland-freed group from the Sixties. Would you like to comment on this reaction?

The three of us were talking, in Auckland at the end of 1996, and this idea floated into the conversation and everyone went, Bingo! The test was to see if the Sixties did make writing that is still interesting, you know—after all the claims for mind-expansion and so on. I was nervous about it but soon the project was too big for Bumper Books. The range of material we found was incredible. Poets like Harry Goodwin, Dibble … dozens of fugitive books. And they wrote back to us saying, This makes it all worthwhile. I found a magazine called Plastic in Smith’s Book Shop in Christchurch, one issue only in 1970. I bought three of them for fifty cents!

I know those people who were in Dunedin then have made sour comments about Big Smoke. Let me say, the anthology required generous work, three of us devoted much time to it, and thinking about it. We took the best there was. The change from what poetry looked like before freed to what it looked like afterwards was too obvious to ignore. Whatever happened, it did not happen in Dunedin. At the same time, some of the major figures in Big Smoke, South Islanders like Peter Olds or Mark Young, or Dennis List, had not much to do with freed. In the early Seventies, the most stimulating New Zealand poetry scenes were in Sydney or London.

You’ve long been associated with the experimental journals and now prefer to publish much of your work in A Brief Description … edited by John Geraets. Is this because you find your style marginalised by the other journals?

That word again. I like to be where the entertainment is. The simple answer is John Geraets asks for what I’m writing. I go back to Jabès, writing is always scratching paint off a mirror. You want to be with secure company to do that. Brief gives you that space to be in, room to move. Geraets takes it seriously, he generates a moral purpose. And the material he prints is always disparate, and wysiwyg as well.

Are you interested in theory and postmodern L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics?

I read theories about everything! In literary theory, Derrida was provocative about Artaud, Celan and Joyce. Then he got trapped defending Heidegger’s outrageous cowardice. He said his mission was to put philosophy on a stage, he is a North African Jew, like Jabès. The theory I read nowadays is like Gombrowicz’ Diary, or Pessoa’s Always Astonished. People who lived according to a theory they spent years trying to formulate. I’m reading philosophy again, since my daughter became interested in it. I have found Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard, again. They fill my need for the abstract. Kierkegaard is a drama-philosopher, brilliant characters. I read anything by Avital Ronell, despite her attempt to recuperate Heidegger as a Dada-ist! The twentieth century programme of ‘the Modern’ is meaningless to us except as a rearguard action against the changes that made the world we live in now. So it is stimulating to see how people figure we will cope.

Language poetry—the people who created this brand were writing workshop tutors, they made themselves a kind of conglomerate of various interests but with the purpose to influence teaching. The theoretical issues we had already thought through with freed, except in 1969 we did not have a critical vocabulary. By the time Bernstein et al became known, we had abandoned the utopian programme they espoused. As Americans, they were more technology-based, naturally, but also contradictorily pastoral, poetry was pen marks on paper, as a kind of measure of authenticity. I was getting enough of that from eg. Jabès! I never came across Charles Bernstein in New York. I don’t think he hung out on St Marks. The Language guys were all academics by then anyway. Richard Foreman’s work was significant for me because he is a poet in theatre, achieving performances with his Ontological-Hysteric Theatre I could only begin to think about, non-stop interior monologues, mysterious rituals. Bizarre how ‘Language Poetry’ is used here as a term of vituperation. Though I agree there is something gnomish about it. Anyway, it’s over. We can’t sit around regretting ‘the marginalisation of poetry’ like we are roof-thatchers or doing some other kind of dead-end occupation.

Your poetry whilst displaying stylistic effects of the postmodern Schools, seems to me to always stick to a ‘narrative’ of some sort and tell a story, e.g. Moonshine. Do you reject total obscurity as a writer, do you think having a point and a political message to be valid and important in your writing?

Language poetry was very anti-‘voice of the poet’; not surprising, John Ashbery is one of the poorest readers of poetry I’ve ever heard. This antipathy to recital is connected to the antipathy against narrative. The voice speaks, it tells a story. You know, assemblage, collage, fusion, heteroclivity, the ‘informe’—those things are fascinating for sure but connect only peripherally with the present demand for a kind of documentary reality. We want what is real. I don’t want to give up the freedom to tell a story that could mean any thing, or everything, that’s what words do.

I don’t dispute the notion that narratives are political constructions, but so is identity. The Australians have leapt at ‘narrative’ with their usual pizzazz—Murray, John Tranter. My message is to get out of unattractive situations, take your own space, don’t be pushed around, despise power that perpetuates itself, eradiate violence against others, and don’t be afraid to dance, or shout. In other words, create your own reality. Read Kafka.

In your poem about the Mistress (see Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry [1989]) you use what looks like traditional rhyme and a lot of your work employs internal rhyme. Do you think rhyme and traditional form is still of use in poetry?

Charles Olson said, at the end of his crazy career, ‘rhyme’ was the true matter of poetry. There are all sorts of schemes you can follow but I make up my own. Why reinvent ottava rima? There’s not much poetry in New Zealand with the verbal daring, for instance, of rap masters. I can’t see how a poet would not want to be dexterous with words, to jump around in the sheer delight of sound. Yes, I push ‘rhyme’, and now other poets are losing their fear of being that ‘poetical’. Rhyme is after all what is untranslatable, something essential, and it makes you think harder; it’s an escape route out of the anecdote. What we have to do is teach the teachers to read for the pleasure of it, not for the meaning. The rhyme words are the clue to the rhythm. Physics tells us that rhythm is the structure of the universe, strings hanging down; play that harp. There is a music of the spheres. Which is what poetry imitates. Free verse induces the sort of dah-dah-dah performance through the nose you get here. The first thing I do in a poetry workshop is teach people how to breathe.

You have collaborated quite often with Richard Killeen. How did you meet him and how does your poetry complement his image?.

I knew Ric’s work when he was ‘Pop’ in the Sixties, using comic books. Sally was an old friend of the Chance family. She told me how one night Margreta Chance announced she had met an artist and she was going to marry him, Ric. When we met later, Ric was very easy to have rapport with. He has designed Red Mole posters, made shadow puppets for us (sadly, stolen from our car outside a supermarket in Española, New Mexico), so when he set up Workshop Press a collaboration was soon suggested. He is a very literate hombre, fantastic library. Ephphatha, we did together by hazard; I wrote 14 lines each day for a week while, separately, Ric developed images over the same seven days. Then he put the poem and his pics together trying to avoid any contamination, either way, of text and image.

Finally, your new book Ecstasy has recently been published. Tell us a bit about this book. How it came together and what period it represents, e.g. a version of ‘What happens in Shakzpeare’ appeared in the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1985) and Ephphatha is rewritten too.

Ecstasy is the result of a decision to get some order into my affairs, it is a collection of poems I like most from the past decade, i.e. since The Return. So there is no contamination from being elsewhere, the poems were inscribed here. I have been reading Eastern poetry of erotic wisdom, particularly Rumi whose work is coming out in delightful new translations. I wanted the sort of music that Sufi dancers spin to. There are rhythmic influences from Qawwali singers and from a fuzzy tape of the Bauls of Bengal—‘Gooroo Hoodoo’, though the poems are secular. There is philosophy, I hope, and people in love, in history, in joy; all those confusing situations. ‘Movie’ is my vocal track from the video Sally made with me and Michele Leggott, Heaven’s Cloudy Smile. ‘Radiance and light’ goes back to physics, it was part of a show Theories of Everything I performed with Jonathan Besser and The Free Word Band. And with the rewrite of ‘Ephphatha’, I was curious to see if it could be the sonnet sequence it desperately wanted to be. In any case, it’s my last word on life in Island Bay.

I wanted a book for readers to keep on the bedside table, an inducement to intimacy, or illumination—serotonin overload. It should have a yellow cover. Thinking about it being a NZ-thing, I looked back through material from the Seventies to look for signs of continuity. ‘Shakzpeare’ leapt out like a red light. I fiddled with it and it fit! My interest in Eastern poetry began again when the USA made the Gulf War. It may seem apocalyptic but it does look to me that the West is looking for a showdown with Islam, a final battle of ‘good’ against ‘evil’. Or you can see the adversaries as two major systems of rhetoric, or even gender. I don’t want to sound gauche or high-falutin’ but these things were on my mind when putting Ecstasy together. I think it all folds up quite satisfactorily. I’m pretty relaxed about most things right now.


© Alan Brunton 

Last updated 04 February, 2002