new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Mitchell



Showbiz Poetry

Wystan Curnow

First published in New Zealand Listener (12 Sept 1980): 25

This is poetry reading plus. Extra strength. A show, in other words. Fronted by Ian Wedde, Alan Brunton and Dave Mitchell, backed by Bill Gruar (bass), Bruno Lawrence (drums), and Wilton Rodger (multi-instrumentalist) – Brunton called them “The Four Gone Conclusions”, but he lost count, or maybe he was including Sara Mitchell, an Australian folksinger who did a couple of spots.

State of the Nation was all quick changes and energy flow. No laid-back patter impeded the reading; poets announced neither themselves nor their works. They soloed, they swapped choruses, they soloed again. There was music, there was poetry, there was poetry with music. Mostly the music accompanied; it punctuated, underlined.

Wedde, Brunton and Mitchell are all poets who write for the ear –  they could be counted on to be in good voice. They are among those who enlarged the audience for poetry readings and extended their platforms to include a mixed-media, revue-type theatre. Brunton, of course, is an old Red Mole trouper, and the most happily theatrical of the three. His material was a collage of poses rapidly struck – a comic-book cut-up, mean and apocalyptic.

Mitchell wore the black and white striped T-shirt favoured by various mimes and French sailors like Fred Astaire. A tough cookie with a soft centre, he seemed least at home on the big stage. In the first half, anyway – later, when he forgot about his hat and where to put his hands, he let his words speak for themselves. Unlike Brunton’s, these were his own. His is a personal voice.

So is Wedde’s, but with a wider range. More of the world gets in and he wags a prophetic finger with the best. He had nothing to match Pathway to the Sea but did address the state of the nation more tellingly than either Brunton or Mitchell.

For a show intended to say what we’ve come to, State of the Nation was uncomfortably reminiscent of where we’ve been. There was Bruno Lawrence to remind me of late 50s beatnik glories – wasn’t this, after all, the old jazz-and-poetry thing? Sara Mitchell folk-sang her protest against uranium; Dave Mitchell grew nostalgic for the 60s and his lost Ponsonby lifestyle. He eulogised Rimbaud, then recently dead Henry Miller: “Henry,” he said, “you were almost better than Buddy Holly.”

That’s how it was in the counterculture: both were stars and on our side. And how it is with this showbiz poetry? Sounds like it.

On the other hand, none of these performers will end up in Bob Lowe’s pulpit. They’ve much more cultural cunning than that. There’s not a genteel bone in their bodies. They’ve sharp eyes and fast mouths. They’re better than a unit in Sociology, better than an issue of Islands, better than a year of Kaleidoscope – and better even than a Mi-Sex concert.

©Wystan Curnow

Last updated 30 March, 2010