new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Mitchell


Don’t breathe a word: Dave Mitchell’s poetry and films

Genevieve McClean


I think it was in 1996 when I travelled home from Wellington to Auckland to visit my family that I determined to meet up with Dave again. He was living in Mount Eden and to find his address I’d rung Barry Lett. I found the flat and knocked on the door. I knocked again. Several minutes passed. I called out ‘Dave are you there?’ The door opened with the chain on and Dave’s eye peered out through the crack. 

My boyfriend at the time and I sat on the floor while Dave regaled us with cricketing anecdotes interspersed with accusations of illicit behaviour by the upstairs neighbours. Then he asked each of us to choose as a gift one of the posters cut from calendars of famous painters and pinned to his wall.  
‘Dave,’ I said, ‘you’ve got to publish. You must do it.’
Dave eyed me up. ‘Why?’
‘It will just be a terrible shame if you don’t.”
He cracked a big grin, his eyes glinted a little and he leaned towards me theatrically. ‘Is this an altruistic motive?’ I had to ask ‘What does altruistic mean?’ and so he explained. 
Some years before I’d upset him by telling him that he was paranoid. I was 18 or 19, and he’d got to tears saying I was harsh when what I meant was that he should accept himself as he was and trust me as his daughter. I so much wanted his trust, and not to be wallpapered to the world of his adversity. Now he said, ‘Altruistic – all true?’ and I jumped to defend what I’d said.
‘Dave, everywhere I go people ask after you. They have a copy of Pipe Dreams on the shelf or they remember it. They want to know if you are still writing, still here. There are a lot of people in New Zealand and beyond who love you and want to see your work. No, it’s not altruistic, it’s totally selfish because I want all those people to see your work again.’ Or some such earnestness. Dave laughed, then he got even more wily and leaned in conspiratorially. ‘But it’s all I’ve got,’ he said.

I remember tears of frustration and sadness welling up in my eyes and Dave saying something about a film. Under his bed there were film reels of poetry from the Globe readings in the early 1980s. That and his manuscripts were all he had to leave to his daughters. I tried to persuade him to let me contact the Film Archive who at that time were taking in old films and transferring them for free. ‘Don’t Tell Anyone!’ Dave wagged his finger at me. ‘Don’t breathe a word!’

So I promised not to tell anyone, and chose Van Gogh’s sunflowers from the wall. Dave seemed concerned. ‘Are you sure that’s the one you want?’
‘Dave the film will deteriorate.’
‘Not a word!’

A year later and the next time I was in Auckland I went to see Dave again but he’d gone missing. Even Barry Lett didn’t know where he was, and everyone I spoke to was concerned about him. I loitered around cricket clubs, I did all I could but returned to Wellington without a clue as to his whereabouts. The next day I bumped into him outside the Embassy Theatre on Kent Terrace, and thus began a new phase of connection during which I helped him to photocopy all of his poetry, three times over, in the small and crowded Bats Theatre office. ‘Don’t mind us,’ I said. ‘We’re making history; I’ll tell you later.’ We stood there for several hours and produced piles of A4. When we were done I was triumphant but Dave shook his head (eyes glinting) and pulled out a much larger pile of paper from his cricket bag.

We went back the next day and the next and finally Dave had all the copies bound and presented me with my tomes. ‘Put them in a box in your wardrobe,’ he said, ‘and don’t tell a soul.’



The old Globe film travelled to Sydney with Dave In 2006. Nigel Roberts and my sister Sara Mitchell between them had it transferred to digital Beta along with some video from a television appearance.  

The Globe readings were shot by David Tossman who returned over a period of two or three years to film readings. Towards the end he didn't have his own film equipment and sometimes borrowed an Arriflex BL 16 mm camera. His recollections of the project's origins are quite a funny read:

Dave's greatest talent, I suggest, was as a salesman. (I would, by the way, ascribe the same talent to most of the highly regarded artists, literary or otherwise, that I know.) He prevailed. I resisted, even resented at times, but nevertheless committed myself to turning up at the Globe on Tuesday nights for how many weeks? I can't remember.

The film was shot on 16 mm cameras using 400 ft loads as well as short ends begged and borrowed from other film makers. As Tossman describes it, the audio gear was  'not a fancy film-synch model' and he never had a good microphone.

Sadly, several reels of film were decayed beyond use by the time Nigel and Sara got to them. What could be saved is now being synched up by John Hagen. The difficulty is that because the sound was recorded wild, John has had to fit it to screen by lip reading the image and guessing which piece of audio matches. When the battery on the camera starts to go flat, it slows down and the footage begins to accelerate. More problems with timing.

What is on the Globe film?

Dean Buchanan's painting of Rimbaud (1980) hangs behind the procession of readers at the microphone. Dave unrolled the Buchanan hanging each Tuesday night (it's still In the family) and was MC throughout. In later reels there's a Pat Hanly hanging and then a Phil Clairmont. Dave reads of course, among a poetic host that includes Campbell, Ensing, Gladwin, Hapipi, Kemp, Menzies, Orr, Paterson, Potiki, Pule, Price, Rockel, Shadbolt, Stead, Vogt, Von Sturmer and Wedde.

It is very exciting to hope that there is sound for everyone who appears on tape, and that there is imagery for everyone in the audio.  We think a lot of it’s there and hope to let everyone know about it soon, but at this stage we just can’t promise. 

We are also looking for funding to make a film that supplements this archival treasure with interviews and story telling. It will take time but (my own words to Dave coming back at me) it must be done. So thanks to David Tossman for all that he did, and thanks to Dave for talking him into it!

Auckland, 2010



©Genevieve McClean

Last updated 5 March, 2010