new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Mitchell


Publishing Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby

Stephen Chan

I first heard David Mitchell read at the Gluepot in Ponsonby and was tremendously struck by the poems from what he called his Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby series. In fact, very few of these poems made it into the book. They were reworked or, in some cases, written anew. One of the very first early publications of an individual poem from the sequence appeared in a late 1960s Dunedin literary magazine and was about Anna and the Twelve Tribes. I have long lost that poem, but it impressed me so much I published one of my own as a direct derivative. I thought I would be getting poems like that but, as it turned out, the final manuscript was better than anything I had expected.

The book was published when I was still a student. In fact, my student grant paid for the printing deposit. My beef against NZ publishing then, epitomised by a very cautious Caxton Press, was that it was dominated by old men with old ideas and old techniques. The young, especially the lyrically experimental young, weren't getting a look in. So I simply decided to set up my own publishing house and do what the Caxtons were not. The Mitchell book was the first from the Association of Orientally Flavoured Syndics—which was basically me—and the name was derived from 'the Syndics of Cambridge University Press' as they were then called, and a play on my being oriental. Richard King, who designed the book—and made its production very expensive as a result—and I were anxious that it not only shatter the Caxton conservatism in literary terms but that it set new design standards in NZ publishing as a whole. We were the first in the country to use a new typeface, 'theme', which had just been introduced, for an entire book. And we badgered Patrick Hanly until he agreed to let us use some ink drawings to illustrate the book. Pat and David Mitchell were good friends in any case.

Richard King was an extremely handsome man who laid out the magazines and newspapers I used to edit, by hand (as you had to in those pre-computer days), on the floor. We were pretty doped up a lot of those long evenings and he would always play John Coltrane as he worked and I got in the way. He died very recently but, until the end of his days, he was still the design genius behind many of NZ's best-looking books. The Mitchell book was his first.

We never launched the book. I'd run out of money. In fact, although the book sold out very rapidly, my inexperience was such that I spent more money than I needed to in a whole raft of production and promotional activities. The hardback edition was bound by hand, for instance. I hawked it in person to hundreds of book shops throughout the country, hitch-hiking in order to do so. Back home I would wrap the orders by hand, scrawl out crude invoices, and then inveigle my alarmingly patient mother once a week to cart the lot down to the post office (and pay for the postage to the bookshops). It did mean that I had no money to be a student, so—in true late 1960s and early 1970s fashion—a number of elegant older women took me under their arms and paid off the printing and other costs. Because the third objective, apart from making a stand against literary conservatism and designing something beautiful, was to sell the book as cheaply as possible. It was a huge critical success almost immediately, but it lost money copiously.

In those days we all spent part of our lives in Ponsonby. David's use of the term, "Vivaldi’s rose-thorn cloak", in one of his Pipe Dream poems, blowing against the evening light, summed up our lives of imitation romanticism and barely post-adolescent style. I was deeply immersed in literature but also in radical politics, and the resultant traumas and clefts in my family made the term 'Orientally Flavoured' one I didn't want to use again. Chinese families clawing their way to respectability in NZ were not going to be happy with a prodigal son who spent all his money on literary adventures and all his remaining time organising protests. Even if he was dressed in the way David Mitchell described Vivaldi as being dressed. The next big book I published, by Ian Wedde, came out under my own name. And I'd learnt about finances then.

David and I fell out, I think—I only heard about his feelings through the grapevine—over the lack of money from the book. A very few years afterwards I left NZ and didn't hear of David for decades. I am very very sad he is ill. The whole project of his poems and the publication of his book were the kind of adventure that summed up what I thought was a rare epoch in NZ. I couldn't live there again. Not enough such epochs. But I remember listening to 'Davey' read, often seated on the floor of the stage, and being entranced. It was wonderful. I still think it was one of the best books of poetry ever written in NZ. I don't think it would have been published if I hadn't done it so, years and thousands of miles removed, endless peacekeeping and post-conflict involvements in Africa later, I am proud of the book.

London, 2009


ęStephen Chan

Last updated 5 March, 2010