new zealand electronic poetry centre

David Mitchell


Letter to Timothy Sugden

Iain Sharp

Dear Timothy Sugden,

Sorry it's taken a while to reply. I've had the 'flu. Good luck with your project. Like many people, I regard David Mitchell—and his poetry—with great affection, despite his "difficulties". I'm happy to help if I can. I'm emailing you for the sake of speed. A warning, however. Although I was aware of Dave during the tail end of the Big Smoke era, my acquaintance with him dates from the early 80s. So I can only guess at the answers to some of your queries.

I simply don't know, for instance, whether it was patriotism, family commitments or something else that stopped Dave from making a long-term move to Australia, as Mark Young and Nigel Roberts did. Likewise, I simply don't know what Dave made of Curnow; the subject never came up in my hearing. (I wish it had. It's an interesting question). Dave contributed an essay on Baxter to Alister Taylor's 1972 tribute volume that suggests they were close. But I don't recall his mentioning Baxter much in the early 80s either.

Narcotics are said to have contributed to Dave's mental decline, and this might well be true, but I have no direct evidence. The only drugs I actually saw Dave take were beer and nicotine. He spoke frequently—and romantically—of France and references to French culture abound in his poems. But Asia? Again I simply don't know what his attitude was, beyond the obvious observation that the Vietnam War interested / moved / stirred him. (He included his fine Song My / My Song poem quite often in 80s performances.)

Before his mind started to go in the mid-90s, Dave was very astute and witty. I think he would have shared my amusement at the warped geography in your last question. "The decline of faith in the West, a looking Eastwards. Many went to Sydney." Sydney is northwest of NZ, Timothy. Looking Eastwards takes us to Chile.

I first heard Dave read in a place on Grafton Rd, Auckland, in 1971, as part of a lineup that also included Ian Wedde, Murray Edmond, Alan Brunton, Arthur Baysting and Russell Haley. I had just turned 18 and was fresh out of high school. Dave seemed far too scary to approach. The others—apart from low-key, comical Arthur—were a bit frightening, too, in their haughty self-absorption. But Dave was definitely the scariest. He read with clenched fists and seethed with unexplained anger (perhaps related to his wife's breakdown—mentioned in Pipe Dreams). He had a wild reputation that filtered down even to a pea-green kid like me. He was rumoured to hurl chairs and other missiles at audiences if he didn't like the look of them.

I think there was a small admission fee for this Grafton event, but none of the writers in the lineup would have found it "financially viable" to survive from poetry alone. I'm not sure if Dave was already a primary school teacher at this stage—but that was his main income for many years. Yeah, the poets all strove like crazy to outperform one another. But this is hardly unusual among writers, no matter the era. I remember Curnow and Glover aggressively correcting each other's pronunciation at a Wellington event in the late 70s. Wedde, Brunton, Edmond and Haley were friends—a closeknit quartet. Arthur was an amiable tagalong—or possibly the organiser (he later edited the 1973 Young NZ Poets anthology). Dave had contributed poems to Freed, the magazine run by Edmond and Brunton, and was respected by them. But I don't think he was ever a close buddy.

A decade later, when I got to know Dave reasonably well, I'd think back to that Grafton reading and wonder what was going on that I missed at the time. Dave pretty much fucked up his university career, with missed exams and dropped courses. He was always uncomfortable in the company of high academic achievers like Edmond and Haley. His attitude to academia, in general, was a volatile mix of awe and resentment, shyness and belligerence. I know, because he told me on more than one occasion, that he really admired Wedde's poetry—there's a broad affinity of outlook in their work. (Have you seen Wedde's review of Pipe Dreams in the second issue of Cave magazine, August 1972?) But I'm not sure what Dave made of Edmond or Brunton. My guess is he didn't feel the same degree of kinship with them that he did with Wedde. Generally, I think he preferred the company of less university-oriented poets. The names that spring quickest to mind from the Big Smoke anthology are Johnny Goodall / Macnamara (always "Johnny Clap" to Dave), Nigel Roberts, Peter Olds, Herman Gladwin (though they often fought—Herman was a cantankerous, insistently needling, old bugger) and Bob Orr. Herman died years ago, but Michele Leggott at Auckland University could probably give you addresses for the others. Johnny's sardonic take on the "Mitchell ritual", as he liked to phrase it, would be especially worth having. Peter's memories of the 60s are remarkably vivid too.

It was rare for Dave to disparage other writers' work. He wasn't bitchy in that regard (one of his more attractive traits). But Bill Manhire's gnomic early verses definitely weren't to his taste. "Did you always write those tight little poems?" he once asked Bill in my hearing, screwing up his face, as if severely constipated, to emphasise the tightness. "Was there never an evanescence?"

I was part of a loose—and occasionally evanescent—circle who got to know Dave when he was running the weekly Poetry Live sessions on Tuesday nights at the Globe Hotel in Wakefield St, Auckland, between 1981 and 1984. He was in his early 40s at the time; the rest of us were mainly in our 20s and early 30s. He told me once that he was embarrassed about not producing a new book after he returned from being the 1976 Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton. Setting up Poetry Live was his alternative—a way of giving something back to local literature.

Yes, he was difficult always, mercurial, sometimes exasperating, occasionally violent, but he was also capable of great warmth and generosity. Poetry really mattered to him and he believed passionately in the notion of the "open forum" where everyone had a chance to speak. Yes, he could be a right bastard at times—obstinate, ornery, deaf to reason—but there was a core of decency, even nobility, that drew people to him and made them love him (any other verb is too tepid) in spite of various abuses. He was like a grumpy brother whose approval we continually sought. A nod or grunt from Dave meant more than noisy applause from the crowd.

"David eventually turned on most everyone." Yeah, I guess so, but if you follow 60s slang, you'll see that's a multi-layered pun, as in John Lennon's famous line: "I'd love to turn you on." Dave was usually very civil to me, but he was sometimes savage to people I knew. The result wasn't always lasting enmity, though. The mood blew over; people made up. One lady told me in 1982, "Ah Dave! We've been fighting and fucking for years." The same might be said—at least metaphorically—of Dave's relationship with many others.

John Pule, David Eggleton, Michael O'Leary, Michael Morrissey and Mike Johnson are some of the better-known people who were Globe regulars. No doubt you've already got in touch with them. But I'd also strongly recommend contacting Rosemary Menzies, Elizabeth Newton and Judy McNeil, who knew Dave well at this stage of his life. Judy runs the Poetry Live sessions now held on Tuesdays at the Sweet Beats bar in Karangahape Rd. She might be able to give you an address for Roberta Lochhead, who knew Dave in the Globe era and continued to see a lot of him in the 90s, after the rest of the gang had lost touch.

Since you say you don't have much input so far from women, I'd also suggest getting in touch with former Landfall editor Chris Price, who not only went fairly regularly to the Globe in the 80s but also organised a memorable reading Dave gave at Just Desserts circa 1982. Chris works at the office of NZ International Festival of the Arts in Wellington. Dave has a daughter who writes—Genevieve McLean. She's currently in Dunedin, I think. Her friend Raewyn Alexander should have contact details.

Three years prior to Pipe Dreams, Dave published a small volume called The Orange Grove. It's not easy to get hold of a copy. I think the College of Education Library in Auckland might have one. The rather circumspect nature of your reference to Rimbaud, via Stephen Chan and Jim Morrison, suggests that you might not have read Dave's poem "Rimbaud", included in Alistair Paterson's 1980 anthology 15 Contemporary New Zealand Poets. Alistair told me in the early 80s that he had to swipe the manuscripts from Dave to get them published. Alistair's anthology contains some key Dave items you won't find anywhere else, including Poets to Come, which he recited frequently at the Globe. But there are dozens (yup, dozens) of poems he frequently read aloud that haven't made it into print. He used to tote around a haversack full of manuscripts, dating back to the sonnets he wrote in his teens.

Did Dave stand apart? Yes and no. At times, he'd work himself into a bitter and aggrieved frame of mind where he saw himself as a "man alone", misunderstood, pitted against a hostile world. As his mental health deteriorated in the mid to late 90s, it wasn't unusual to see him standing in the middle of Mt Eden Rd, waving an angry fist at passing traffic, cursing. But he had a sociable side too. In the Globe days, John Ricketts, the nice Welshman who ran the pub, would invite Dave and a few others downstairs for a quiet drink after closing time. After that, we'd usually go on to some late-night spot—Just Desserts in Airedale St, Blondies in Victoria St, Club Mirage in High St, a coffee bar whose name I've forgotten next to the Pink Pussycat strip club in Karangahape Rd. Mirage was a snooty place and Judith Baragwanath, the maitre d', would usually turn scruffy poet types away with a withering comment. But she always let Dave in. It wasn't unusual to run into Dave at Ponsonby parties. (Have you talked to Mark Williams on the Canterbury staff? He might have some memories from the early 70s.) There was a circle of heavy drinkers at the back bar in the Gluepot in Ponsonby Rd that he often joined. Johnny Macnamara might be able to tell you about this.

Dave could be temperamental onstage as well as off. John Ricketts once invited him to read poems to a meeting of local Rotarians or Lions (I've forgotten which, exactly). Knowing how moody Dave could be, John called on Rosemary Menzies and me as back-ups in case something went wrong. Dave turned up, but he was very much in an "anti" mood. He had his forefinger shoved up his nose while he declaimed his verses in a viciously sarcastic voice. The poor old public-spirited, non-literary businessmen didn't know what the hell they'd struck.

On another occasion, while reading a lament for Henry Miller, Dave hit raw eggs into the audience, not giving a damn how much people were spattered. And there was one night at the Globe when he decided all us regulars were self-centred pricks oblivious to the dangerous shape the world was in. Instead of the usual open forum session, he made us watch a documentary about dwindling rainforests. He had access to such learning aids as a teacher. On the other hand, in a relaxed mood, he was capable of reading beautifully for hours, working his way through Pipe Dreams and then into the contents of his haversack. 

Was poetry all that Dave was about? Well, yeah, I think it was his chief concern always. But he was passionate about cricket too. Even when he was in his mid-50s, his mind slipping, I'd often see him dressed in his whites, clutching his bat, heading toward Victoria Park. There must be people at the Ponsonby Cricket club who could supply more information. And Dave was interested in other arts besides writing. He was friends with painters like Phil Clairmont and Tony Fomison and also knew a lot of musicians. I liked talking to him about jazz. We shared a love for old Fats Waller numbers like The Joint is Jumpin' and Your Feet's Too Big—happy-go-lucky stuff to take a troubled, unhappy man out of himself. Yes, of course, he knew the songs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors and other 60s bands, but he was fonder, I think, of the early rock 'n' roll music he'd enjoyed as a teen in the 50s.

He and Bruno Lawrence were teenage friends in Wellington. Bruno was one of the back-up musicians, along with Bill Gruar and Wilton Rodger, when Dave, Wedde and Brunton did their 1980 State of the Nation tour. Bruno occasionally came to the Globe readings. The TV and film producer Barry Everard knew both Bruno and Dave quite well and could probably comment on the friendship.

For me, Dave's "aversion to print" is the central mystery. A need for recognition and approval warred in his troubled psyche with a deep insecurity that often emerged as a kind of "fuck you all!" defiance. Pipe Dreams had been such a popular and critical success, he was worried that he'd never produce anything to match it—a bit like Keri Hulme's failure to give us a second novel after the bone people. He had plenty of material and was highly regarded in the 1970s. Editors back then were keen to publish him, but he resisted. Because no new work appeared in print—and only a fairly small group of Aucklanders got to hear him read—it was inevitable, I think, that he was eclipsed in the 80s by prolific contemporaries like Wedde and Manhire. Perhaps, through his daughter Genevieve, it might still be possible to produce another book of Dave's work while he's still alive. Big Smoke has certainly revived interest. But this missive is turning into a book itself and I intended only a quick note.

Best wishes,
Iain Sharp

Auckland, 2000

ŠIain Sharp

Last updated 30 March, 2010