Interview with Peter Olds
Peter, you are living in Dunedin now.
Many years, since the mid sixties with a few gaps. I was coming & going a lot, probably up to the 1970’s, half the time in Dunedin & half the time in other places. Finally let go of Auckland, which I regarded as my home until 1976, came back to Dunedin in ’77 & I’ve been here more or less ever since except for a two year stint with my parents in Omokoroa near Tauranga when I attempted to reform my ways & change my life & become a fisherman . . . & give up writing & do something else. But that didn’t work out too well. While I was there I spent a bit of time up in Auckland & Wellington, to-ing & fro-ing. My parents didn’t mind what I did, there was always a bed at their place. So it was a good time for me & also in the early eighties I spent a significant part of my life in Seacliff on the coast north of Dunedin in a hut. I had some chooks & a garden & I did a bit of writing there & it was great.
Scuttling back to Auckland . . . when was the first time you can remember meeting David Mitchell?
Well it would be at a poetry reading . . . around the end of ’71, when Baxter was still alive. I use him as a kind of signpost, a marker. It was at one of those quaint festival things universities used to run in those days. It may have been 1972. It was at a poetry reading & I had just published a small booklet containing a one-poem sequence called ‘The habits you left behind.’ We all repaired to the hall in the uni where we were going to read. In those days the audiences were quite large & the alcohol flowed quite freely & everybody had a good time as a rule. Typically of poetry readings in those days there were about eight males & one female on the stage. We all used to sit up on the stage & somebody would get up & act as MC & introduce us one by one & we’d each have our turn to read. We’d have two shots at it with a short interval in between. I remember I’d heard of David Mitchell but I didn’t know anything about him except that he was a kind of Allen Ginsberg-ish character who, along with Mark Young & one or two others in Auckland, ruled the roost.
What about a physical description of him then?
Quite long curly hair, almost Afro style, quite dark, with glasses . . . he looked slightly like Groucho Marx & he had this heavy black moustache & a prominent Baxter-type nose. I don’t know if he was but he looked a bit, quote, Jewish . . . sort of stereotype Jewish. He had a smallish sort of a chin which added to the clown-like face, a very attractive face. He was immediately engaging, one of those people who could make you feel that you were the only person in the room. He would just concentrate directly on you. Somebody introduced us & he said: It matters little now . . . quoting my poem, It matters little now that I’ve taken on the habits you left behind. He must have read the poem & been impressed by it, & we both laughed. That was my first meeting & we were sort of mates from then . . . you were either in the Davy Mitchell camp or you were out of it. If he didn’t like you he would find some way of ridiculing you, like putting your reading down . . . or some aspect of your manhood or womanhood. He could be a bit nasty about people he didn’t like.
Was that at the Globe?
No, much earlier, the Globe was later, in the eighties. I was invited to read at the Globe & flown up from Dunedin for that purpose & that was in 1980.
Did Mitchell ever talk about his craft . . . how he penned his poems or poetry?
Well not to me he didn’t. I got the impression that he avoided all of that sort of analysis of his stuff, though that is not to say that he didn’t have discussions with appropriate people. He used to talk about people . . . influences we had in common like Bob Dylan. He seemed to be quite stuck on Dylan.
I always remember him wearing sunglasses, do you?
He wore glasses, you know those round glasses like John Lennon’s granny glasses. He had this vague Groucho Marx-ish look about him & he was a really athletic guy . . . he used to dress quite sharply in very casual clothes. He never dressed up. He’d spent a lot of time in France so he obviously picked up some gigolo look or something like that. He always presented himself as an exotic, almost a follow on from the Mod era which had ended six years before but Mitchell was still dressing in these white striped pants & unusual T shirts & tops. Other times he’d turn up in some type of tweedy jacket, depending on the occasion.
The Donald Allen anthology influence . . . does that strike a chord?
Well I know that book though I wasn’t acquainted with it at the time. It came out in 1960, an Evergreen paperback or a New Directions. I later acquired a copy of it but I wasn’t aware of it back then. I had my own books that interested me, then I saw a lot of authors in there whose work I loved . . . Frank O’Hara. Sylvia Plath maybe, & that other woman poet who killed herself, one of Plath’s friends. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Creeley & so on.
Would you say that he had a strong American influence?
Well I thought it was French.
I always thought it was French. He read a lot of writers in French. He was fluent in French & he wrote it. I went around to his house once & on his work desk where he had been writing letters there were heaps of stuff in French. He was reading it & writing it. I got the impression that French writers influenced him . . . who I don’t know, he never really talked about that.
What about the ’73 Christchurch Festival?
Well I remember that clearly. It was the birth of the Young NZ Poets. I think the anthology of that name that Arthur Baysting put together & Heinemann published, I think it came after that & contained all or most of the people who read at that poetry reading. At the new Christchurch Town Hall. Tom Paxton, who was supposed to be playing that night in the Town Hall, had cancelled, so they asked would you like to use the Town Hall because it’s booked & no one’s going to be using it. What a great experience it was . . . again there were two halves. We all got up & read our sombre stuff first & then pulled the plugs in the second half. I had a particularly good time because I had what I considered pretty hot poems & I read those & they went over well. The subsequent write-ups picked me out as the star performer & all that. But as usual at these poetry readings, we all drank to excess & it became a real challenge, you know: can I get up & read this without falling over, fluffing the lines too much. If you could pull it off it could come out very well. People did tend to read poems that had a bit of muscle, a bit of action . . . Ian Wedde would’ve been the most serious of the readers there that night. & I know that Dave got up & blew everyone away with his elegant reading. He was a very good reader, had a very good voice. Alan Loney also. I can’t remember now if there was a woman there. Maybe one. The blokes had it that night that’s for sure. Alan Loney, Ian Wedde & David Mitchell got special mentions in the Christchurch Press.
A good crowd?
You say Mitchell was pretty good as a reader?
A good reader, yes. He was in control even though he drank as much if not more than anybody else. He loved his bloody wine & getting his rocks off & having a good time . . . but he always had a lot of control about him. I was actually quite hysterical that night because there was an interjector called Irish, who was well known to all of us, & he got up on the stage in the second half & joined in. As each reader came up to the mic, he was standing there like it was a duo. I remember Irish was interjecting a lot while I was reading & I did an ad lib thing which seemed to work out all right, but when I came off I acted like a bit of a prima donna . . . I remember saying something to Irish like you spoilt the whole bloody night. Wedde came into the room & said ‘Shut up, Peter it was perfectly all right.’ I felt terribly humble & thought he knows more about this than I do & shut up. After that I learnt to deal with interjectors. But as it turned out Irish was good value. I don’t know his real name but he used to live in Dunedin & he’d gone up to Christchurch, a great guy.
I was asking before about Mitchell, whether he talked about his craft, how he penned his poems . . .
I think he was really careful about what he wrote down. When I look at his work on the page now . . . he was quite sparing but he was working not spontaneously but really working word on word. People who know his method better than I, describe his work on the page as a score, a musical score, which I suppose made it easier for him to read. He used a lot of breath control & natural rhythms & metre. To my eye his poetry always looked rather attractive on the page . . . he attempted to copy the way he read.
There was a thesis done some years ago by Greg Fleming. It was called Silence, Blank Spaces & the Freeway . . . the poetry of David Mitchell, Alan Loney & Peter Olds. Done in 1990. The Silence, do you think that’s an expression of Mitchell’s work? The Blank Space for Loney; & the Freeway for you?
Well I picked up on the freeway, so he could be referring to me there. I don’t know because I never saw that thesis. What were the others?
Silence, Blank Spaces & the Freeway.
Silence, well, that would describe Mitchell & blank space, Alan Loney. I suppose.
You get the impression with Alan that he relies heavily on the unsaid, more consciously than most. I mean good poetry will have, inherently, silences or gaps that have to be filled in but Loney takes that further.
He certainly doesn’t like white rivers through the type.
The large spacing.
I can’t really say much about Mitchell’s style or anything about his influences or reading. Actually he talked . . . that’s interesting, he used to talk in ordinary conversation just like his poetry, it was like one was oral & the other was written down. He had screeds of stuff, huge folders of poems that he called his Davy Mitchell Trip Book . . . & like Kerouac I think he had this idea of publishing the whole thing one day, Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, everything, under the heading of David Mitchell’s Trip Book. But he actually wrote a book that he called The Trip Book, which was about his travels through Europe & his French connections. He loved France, it was like his second home. But his favourite NZ city was Sydney! He used to fly between Auckland & Sydney . . . Auckland was a suburb of Sydney. He would have spent equal time in both places if he could have. He talked about Sydney all the time.
Baxter as teacher / mentor?
He adored Baxter, both as a man & as a writer, the one NZ author he admired above everyone else, in particular the early poems up to Pig Island Letters. He found the Jerusalem Baxter distasteful. I think he admired Jerusalem Sonnets but some of Baxter’s contemporaries & others, including Sam Hunt, didn’t go for them. As Sam Hunt puts it in a recent comment, ‘the mahogany thumping years’; his contemporaries found that part of Baxter difficult to take probably because of the Catholicism, all that mysticism & nonsense & acting like a saint or something, a poseur.
He wasn’t any of those things. He was, as somebody put it, a kind of social worker. I saw it as a kind of political action, taking some political action in the way he had been doing it. Catholicism was used as a tool for getting his message across, which I think is all adequately recorded in his poetry & the prose that he wrote at the time in ’69. You have to go back to about ’69 in the Boyle Crescent period, it’s all in there & I don’t think it needs any analysis. He spells it all out. But Mitchell had a very deep affection for Baxter right up to when Baxter died. He had a connection with him but didn’t go to Jerusalem.
Of course there was the identifying of the body.
He wrote a letter to Trevor Reeves, the editor of Caveman Press, & myself. He described meeting Baxter about three days before he died & having a good few long yarns with him. He met Baxter on the corner of Queen Street, & Baxter gave him this poem which was Ode to Auckland & asked Davy to get it published for him & any bread that might accrue from the sales could go to Jerusalem. Then when he died Davy went up to the city mortuary, which in those days was part of the Auckland Hospital. I know this because I used to work there & had to take bodies to the mortuary. When Dave looked into the common compartment & couldn’t find him I think he suggested that they have a look in the police section & there he was. Dave identified him by his dirty feet. They pulled out these various shelves the bodies were stored on, Dave could see his dirty feet & he said, ‘That’ll be him’ & it was. I saw Baxter in the weeks before he died, in Carrick Place where everyone was crashing. A lot of Jerusalem people were there because the commune had been closed down. Baxter was more or less kicked out. A lot of people don’t know that he was told to bugger off . . . a few weeks or months before. He was in a pretty poor state then actually. Some days he seemed to be completely off his rocker, didn’t know what he was.
This was in Auckland?
Carrick Place, Mt Eden, Auckland. It was all rather sad to see. You could tell that something was about to bust, either the cops were going to catch up with him or something else would happen. He was pretty crook & quite paranoid about his sins being exposed. There was a woman in Auckland at the time, who had had his baby & was threatening to go to the cops, the papers & worst of all to the Superintendent of Oakley Hospital, a Dr Savage, who hated Baxter’s guts. Thought him a bad influence on young people. This woman had been in Oakley at different times so she was well known to the hospital & there was a bit of a concerted effort to try & pin something on Baxter, to try & get a story on him that would have looked pretty juicy if it read something like Guru Baxter gets girl pregnant then turns his back. That’s how sordid it was at the time & she was more or less emotionally blackmailing him, putting the pressure on him, driving him bloody nuts. I said ‘Why don’t you go to a priest?’ & he blew up. He said ‘I can’t go to a priest!’ I’d never seen him like that. He had priest friends, good friends, good doctors . . . there were all sorts of people he could have gone to & said I’ve got this problem, what do I do? I need some advice. Somewhere he could go & just hide from the public for a while. He tried to do that & he went over & stayed with Jean Tuwhare but that must have been a little bit later. It was about when Mitchell saw him last. I had gone back to Dunedin at that stage, I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Mitchell was one of the last to see Baxter. When did you last see Mitchell?
Where? On K Road.
Were you in contact?
No. I didn’t know where he was. Nobody ever knew where exactly Dave was staying. He had a bolt hole in Mt Eden, with Barry Lett, but he wasn’t that easy to find. Dave & I never had that kind of a relationship. You’d turn up & you’d meet, & then it would be, come on, let’s go & have a few drinks & do a bit of this & that . . . there was always something going on. I’d turn up in Auckland because there was a reading & he’d be on too, & we’d all get together & get up to no good. Usually after the reading we’d all feel perky & pleased with ourselves, having already drunk a fair amount of wine. We’d go off & have some more. There’d be a party to go to. Dave was a great performer, he liked to pull his member out & get some young woman to caress it for him as a party trick. I saw that happen a few times. Just things like that. He liked to shock people for a bit of a laugh, he wasn’t malicious with it. I was with him once at a poetry reading where this guy was reading some long long dreary love poem somehow tied up with the Vietnam War. It went on & on & Mitchell was getting more & more agitated & especially as we were sitting pretty well in front . . . a small audience & we each had a spot at reading. It was probably in aid of an anti-Vietnam fund or something . . . & at a certain point Mitchell couldn’t stand any more & he stood up, picked up this chair & threw it at this guy & copped him straight on & did some injury to him. Didn’t need any hospital treatment but Dave bruised him quite badly & that was the end of the reading. He just screamed ‘fuck off & stop reading this bloody crap. What are you talking about, you stupid cunt.’ You know, all that sort of thing. The chairperson stood up & said, ‘Ooorr, thank you very much for coming along.’ It was near the end of the evening. I don’t remember the details. You must remember I was always the out-of-town person. When I was at these things I was the visitor, I just went along with what was going on. I must say, I was no better than Mitchell then. I was standing on tables. I would do that . . . I was bit of an exhibitionist myself & liked to get really drunk. I think that night we repaired to Albert Park & we sat around the fountain at Albert Park drinking the rest of the green ginger wine & honestly I was so crook after that I was unable to face green ginger wine ever again. It became a bit of a joke between us whenever we met up again. He would look at me or I would look at him & say . . . or we’d look at each other & one of us would say ‘green ginger wine’ & fall about with laughter. He had a similar experience with green ginger wine, couldn’t go it again. We probably drank two or three bottles of it that night between us & it was great at the time. But oh god vomiting up green ginger wine, it’s not very nice. Stone’s green ginger wine.
You know, Pipe Dreams came out in 1972. Do you remember reading it?
Yeah I was like a lot of guys, immensely jealous. Mitchell had that effect on people. I think there were a lot of males around at the time who used to look at Mitchell as something they’d like to be. He seemed to be everything that you’d imagine a poet in the seventies to be. Dave was good with the girls, he looked good, he dressed well, he spoke well. There was a lot of envy there. While people admired him I think they secretly envied his success. When that book came out I couldn’t quite understand it at first because I wasn’t up with how things go. My taste in poetry wasn’t really his. I liked listening to him read because he could make it bounce off the page, but I didn’t know what he was talking about with some poems, where sections came right at me. I probably learnt a bit from him in that respect because if a person can get your ear, if you get into their stuff you can always pick up something out of it. Just the sheer physicality of the book was a great turn on. It was black & just said Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby with white lettering. You flipped it over & there was an audacious, what can I say, flowery self-confident pop starry looking guy on the back with a glass in his hand & a little tank top & striped pants looking like he was the King of Ponsonby & had a book called Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby. He actually used the name Ponsonby in a book, now that was great, that was the best thing to me, as I was trying myself to write stuff that contained words like Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Freemans Bay & so on. There wasn’t much of that going on, you might mention street names, & I probably picked it up from the Beats, how they talked about New York, San Francisco, places like they had some magical resonance. Sort of spiritual, more than just places.
As is Ponsonby.
Right here in NZ. We should be writing about it. Then Mitchell comes out with Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby . . . absolutely perfect. It looked good too, with those Pat Hanly drawings.
Did you ever find out who the Syndics were?
That was Stephen Chan, he published Wedde & put out a book of his own as well. I think he published a few books & that was the end of it. He didn’t do a reprint of Pipe Dreams; that fell to Trevor Reeves. I may have jacked that one up, I was the go-between for Trev & the North Island poets. Trev did a reprint in ’75 but left out the Pat Hanly illustrations. I don’t know what the hell Trev thought he was up to, as he also shrank the overall size. It was still all right because it was facsimile, but no illustrations. When I mentioned this to him quite recently, he said there were never any illustrations in the book (laughter).
So it was an influential piece?
There should be a reprint of that book. So I say this on tape right now . . . for god’s sake you guys, once you get this done do a reprint exactly as it was. You don’t have to reset it again, just get a copy, use what’s there & reprint it in a limited edition & make the bastards pay for it. A lot of people just want that book. One of the most famous books.
Of the seventies . . . of that period?
It was. A lot to do with Mitchell’s charismatic character. There’s good poetry in it, there’s no doubt about that. It was different & then a lot of the books started coming out, The Young New Zealand Poets around about that time. Once it started there was a bit of a flood, right through the seventies. I produced four slim volumes myself. Ian Wedde, Russell Haley—The Walled Garden—Alan Loney, Jan Kemp; they all started publishing books from the early seventies onwards.
Can you remember any one poem from Pipe Dreams?
‘The Ballad of Rosy Crochét,’ about a young kiwi girl who comes from the country & goes to Auckland & meets some big dealers who turn her on to pot. She is encouraged to go to Australia to try heroin in Sydney & has to crack it to bring in money for her pimp, who feeds her drugs. You know, the same old thing. It’s a great piece of work. & then she dies of heroin & has to be brought back in a body bag to her parents to be buried. It was very sad but it was kind of true at the time. A lot of young people went to Sydney; that was the destination in those days, & they’d get mixed up in some heavy drug scenes. Not that there weren’t heavy drug scenes in Auckland at the time; there were. But a lot of them went over there, got into a mess & overdosed or whatever. He wrote a series of poems on My Lai, Ponsonby, Remuera that were talking about the Vietnam War. Juxtapositions of hip Ponsonby & Remuera; hip Ponsonby & massacres, the My Lai massacre. There was also poem about visiting a girl in a psych ward in Kingseat; it’s got an image of an orange in it. Somebody visiting somebody in hospital & it was so sensual. That was something about Mitchell, a lot of his stuff had sexual elements to it. He wasn’t a different person when he wrote from when he wasn’t writing.
You are saying that he was talking poetry?
I think so. He wrote more about himself than he probably intended. He revealed more of himself & he had a quirky sort of sensuality.
Well, he was a man about town, of course. The King of Ponsonby.
He saw himself as a cricketer first of all. A lover of cricket & then a lover of women & then a lover or fan of poetry or writing or people who were involved in the arts. But I stop there because I don’t know what he was like beyond that. He was also a school teacher, so he obviously related to kids; but this was a side of him that I never saw myself. He was a primary school teacher who taught art & he did it off & on for quite a long time.
Was he ever a visitor to Dunedin?
Once for a poetry reading. They invited him down. Chris Moisa was running these poetry readings at the City Hotel, winter ’83. Went over very well, they just loved him.
The last time you saw him?
I was living in the Bay of Plenty with my parents & on a visit to Auckland. I used to spend some time with Mike O’Leary & Graham Lindsay, & I met up with Dave one Saturday night. I had a bottle of brandy & at that time I had a real problem with alcohol. I don’t remember how we met up but it was probably around Ponsonby, appropriately. In the course of the evening we went to a few bars; I had this half bottle of brandy & we were sipping on that between other drinks. We were on K Road, it was late & we were both looking for a bit of action. God knows what we thought was going to happen or whether either of us would be capable of any sort of action. But he seemed to know what he was doing. He said, ‘come with me, I know some girls.’ So we went into this strip club, maybe the Pink Pussy Cat, one of the older ones on K Road. Paid to get in; it was probably my second time at a strip club though I did see Carmen once in Wellington, that was a bit of a dag. Dave knew girls who worked in these places. In those days they doubled as brothels, everyone knew that, & that was what he was probably up to. Anyway we sat & watched part of the show, drinking this bloody brandy, both of us pretty out of it. I remember he leaned towards me & said, ‘I’m going upstairs, I won’t be long,’ & disappeared into the dark. After the show was over you had the option of staying there if you liked, you went to the bar & bought drinks & I did that for a while then another show started. It became apparent that Mitchell wasn’t coming back, so I thought, I’ll go & look for him. So I went through what I thought was the door that he had gone through & into the rabbit warren of narrow little stairways & a labyrinth of little rooms & strange places. There seemed to be about two or three storeys & on each floor there were these little rooms. Girls in various sorts of shades, shapes & undress & it really was quite weird. I was completely out of it, almost hallucinating, I’d had so much to drink. I was distorting everything, asking everybody ‘where’s Dave? Where’s my friend David?’ Thinking they would all know him but no-one seemed to, he was just completely lost. I went through the whole building, I couldn’t find him. Then I got a few nasty looks from various bouncer types. So I left & haven’t seen him since. As far as I know he disappeared in that building & is still there. & we are here. It was a very odd experience. It was like some crazy acid trip & he disappeared into this place. There were fat women, skinny women, women with hardly any clothes on or else all dressed up like drag queens. It was all very weird & they didn’t know who the hell I was or what I was looking for. So I thought fuck you, I’ll bugger off, so I did. Next day I woke up on the floor at Graham Lindsay’s.
Peter, Mike O’Leary in his poem ‘The Mind of My Lai Revisited’ & Stephen Oliver in ‘Letter to David Mitchell’ – one written 2003, the other in 2004 – they’ve both got the same soft shoe shuffling, the shuffle business keeps recurring. Does that say anything about Mitchell?
What’s the soft shoe shuffling, what do you mean? They end up being generous to him, reverent towards him . . .
Shuffling along Oriental Parade, shuffling memories, leaves through the rain.
Mitchell was one of those guys you could look at & the connection with him would evoke memories of good times. Mitchell was always good times. He did blow up occasionally & get into scraps, usually throwing something at somebody. I don’t think he was a fighter as such, but he could lose his temper, throw a tantrum or swipe somebody. But otherwise he was good value to be with, especially around poetry readings; he raised the tone of the whole thing. I liked David because I thought he was like me, liked to get pissed & have a good time, both bodgies in a way. He did have that side, railed against the middle class snobbish thing more than I did because he was probably closer to it, whereas I never saw myself in that light. We were both rebels in our own way. Mitchell was much more relaxed about it all whereas I took myself much more seriously because I saw myself as an imposter & I was just doing my thing & what the hell, I didn’t expect much to come of it.
Does this photo mean anything to you, Peter?
One of the best shots of him is in his cricket gear, taken out the back of one of those Ponsonby houses, flats, & he is shaping up to an imaginary ball with a cricket bat. When I met him once in Queen Street he’d come from a match & he’d got a hundred or something . . .