Brunton, my publisher
the surprise alive
My first contact
with Alan Brunton came when I sent him a typescript of my newly-completed
novel – or ‘text,’ or whatever you want to call it – Nights
with Giordano Bruno. I’d recently published a review (by Richard Taylor)
of his atomic-energy poem Moonshine
in The Pander [9 (1999): 42-43], so
I had an idea that Bumper Books might be hospitable to strange and offbeat
Tuesday, December 28, 1999 12:41 PM
Nights with G. B.
All in all, a
pretty positive response to an unsolicited manuscript from a complete
stranger! ‘Just about covered all the sites I’m interested in’ –
Renaissance Hermeticism, Outer Space, urban angst – it was
almost as if we were speaking the same language, though with completely
different accents. (Later on, in an interview with Mark Pirie, he was kind
enough to say: ‘Jack Ross showed me his manuscript and I was knocked away;
this crazy, obsessively sexual novel … an echo in Auckland of Eco. …’ [JAAM
16 (2001): 67].)
of shared interests came earlier this year, when I was travelling in India. I
found a copy of Somadeva’s Katha Sarit
Sagara [Ocean of the Streams of Story], a fabulously rare ten-volume
compendium of Sanskrit fiction, in a little shop in Bangalore. I’d only seen
it once before, in the Massey University Library (none of the libraries in
Auckland has it), so I was – to put it mildly – rather surprised to see
that Alan had used a xerox of its title page in his article
‘Illuminations’ in brief. [20 (2001): 7]. I’d been meaning to write and ask him about
that, in fact. Was it a particular interest of his? Or was it just the bizarre
nature of that particular title-page that struck him? Now I’ll never know.)
We only met four
times, I realise, counting up. It seems like more, but perhaps that’s
because of the amount of ground one can cover in an afternoon’s conversation.
July 23rd, 2000: Coffee at Columbus’s
the pattern must be simple
We met at a café
in High Street. I’d just been sent a review copy of Big
Smoke, the anthology of sixties and seventies poetry Alan had edited with
Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott, so we used that as a recognition signal. He
came in with an old friend, another publisher (that
was another trait, I would subsequently discover: taking one friend with him
when he went to meet another – a sense of interconnections, not exclusions).
immensely self-confident and relaxed. Maybe it was all those years of
performance; perhaps he was just easily amused by eager neophytes. In any
case, we talked about plans for my book (which he’d now definitely decided
to publish), about the anthology, about the abysmal failure of CNZ and other
grants organisations to support this or any other of this printing projects.
He was not the
sort of guy who refuses to talk business (‘Why cain’t you never talk turkey,’ as Pound once complained to Eliot), but it was
obvious that it came a distinct second to his joy in the work itself – his
missionary desire to wake people up, turn them on, transform their
consciousness … all those sixties clichés, here magically brought to life.
God does not forgive
The day of the big
launch. We met, to start with, at a café in Cuba Street. Michele Leggott came
along, as they were going on together later to a Big
Smoke reading in town, and we had a nice time assassinating reputations
and denouncing the kinds of cosy domesticities that lead to success in this
‘But if you
write like that we won’t be interested in you,’ said Michele. Tableau.
They’d even forgiven me (it seemed) for my Big
Smoke review in the Listener,
which came out sounding pretty carping once all the challenging bits had been
sub-edited out. I felt ashamed of it, though – a squandered opportunity. One
more example of how big a man Alan Brunton was. It didn’t seem to have
occurred to him to blackball me as a result.
I haven’t got
space to go into the baroque happenings at the reading. Suffice it to say that
it was a fairly exhausting afternoon. Alan now had a play to appear in, with a
group of student actors, at The Space. After that
came the co-launch of Sally Rodwell’s book (Gonne
Strange Charity), then mine. A bunch of strangers stared at me strangely
as I read out passages from the Kabbalah mixed with vatic prose. We didn’t
By now, Alan was
definitely running on empty. His state might be described as one of
generalised euphoria. I, unfortunately, had a train to catch. Luckily one of
the actors offered to drive me to the station (she was writing a Ph.D. on the
connections between Paradise Lost
and Philip Pullman’s anti-God children’s trilogy; I’ve often wondered
how she’s getting on with that).
Do I have to spell
it out? This was a kind, considerate, over-committed
man. Reading, play and launch in one day was (at least!) one thing too many.
It didn’t seem to phase him.
It’s just like Confucius says in
It’s nice when
one can be wholeheartedly and unreservedly enthusiastic. We spend so much time
parroting polite expressions that it’s often difficult to believe that
someone really does like something.
in the ‘Bad Language’ series at
the Auckland Art Gallery was a revelation to me. It went on for an hour, and
took the form of a debate about love, incorporating bits and pieces from all
sorts of poems (mainly from Ecstasy).
At the end he walked down into the audience and handed a girl a poem, together
with a request for her phone number. Point taken. A hard thing to carry off,
certainly, but one would have had to be a bit of a churl to object.
I’d heard he was a spellbinding performer, but this was my first experience of it. No tricks or gimmicks, either. He just read well – it was the material that spoke.
Everything we see is God
We met at another
café, this time in Jervois Road. He came with John Barnett and Lesley Kaiser,
whom I’d never met, but whose work I was familiar with from brief.
I’d been very
struck by the warmth with which
he’d greeted me at the reading the night before. There are a lot of things
to think about, a lot of commitments, a lot of meeting and greeting to do on
such occasions. Once again, I was impressed by his ability to seem genuine in
the midst of so much sham.
was a little muted. He was tired. We talked about James K. Baxter (at Alan’s
suggestion, I’d taken a detour up the Whanganui river to visit ‘the
grave’ on my way back from Wellington after the launch).
As he left I asked
him if he’d be interested in publishing another book. ‘Why not?’ he
replied. ‘Send it down.’
It took a little
longer than I thought. I finished working on it late last month, June 2002, a
few days before hearing the news of his death in Amsterdam.
A couple of
extracts from letters to end up with:
Your note about the Serbo-Croat website [Jim Norcliffe had sent me the address of a site which seemed to mention the names of various NZ poets] is the sort of thing we need. We're big in Belgrade! And that your book will be ready too ... product, product, product (a TV series?). Actually, most overseas sales are to Vancouver – there seems to be a little Bumpo Groupo there.
of the last things he wrote me – in response to an email from India]:
all is well with wandering around in your dhoti ... I see where Tagore has
come off copyright and all the Indians are singing his songs out in the open;
doing the Baxter homage as well?