new zealand electronic poetry centre


 Capital of the minimal  

Here We Go


A plate of stale scones, a drab bag lady,
with the Octagon your centre of gravity,
dowdy Dunedin, capital of the minimal,
you’re like East Berlin before the Fall.
           [David Eggleton: If Buccleugh Street Could Talk]

In order to travel to the east we need to sail west; in order to read about the south we need to look north. On 18 December 1642 Abel Tasman made contact with Maori at Taitapu Bay. His contemporary John Donne exulted in Holy Sonnets: ‘At the round earths imagined corners, blow Your trumpets, Angells’. New Zealand is ideally positioned to be a corner; it is an imagined place for most of the world’s inhabitants. Dunedin, unvisited if the subject of rumour because of its contribution to international music (‘The Dunedin Sound’), is still invisible to northern sunglasses – hence the call for Capital of the Minimal.

We southerners are regarded as parochial and pastoral. If it is parochial to own your place rather than to import pre-fabricated frames stamped ‘Made in USA’ then we are parochial. So is Aucklander Kendrick Smithyman, who recognised the inadequacy of nationalist and regionalist mapping; who excavated the contemporary with a sharp pen in the service of a sharper ear for the historicizing nuance; who translated the Italian hermetic school (as did Iain Lonie) while composing Tomorata (Holloway Press, 1996). Which is to say that the description is psychological rather than geographical.

If we follow William Empson and accept that the pastoral is ‘the process of putting the complex into the simple’ then, in doing so, we correct an urban perspective that treats the rural as retrograde; we remember that the apparently plain is essentially heterogeneous. In Otago the persistence of the pastoral is evidenced by the flinty Brian Turner, the conversational razor-grass of Iain Lonie, and the ruminative Bill Sewell; less obviously Tristan Dingemans, speaking for his band High Dependency Unit, affirms the connection when he says ‘we continually try to explore HDU as landscape mapping as much as songwriting. Only with sound can you make the monumental fleeting’.

After an HDU concert in Madison Wisconsin Clarion made the connection: ‘Think not of a lake, but of a river on fire.’ Because it critiques the urban decalogue’s first commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other god before Economic Growth’, the pastoral hinter - irrigated by elegaic and prophetic tributaries - is often apocalyptic in an age anticipated by Nietzsche: ‘A terrible danger: that American-political frenzy and the irrepressible knowledge industry will merge.’ As Nick Ascroft, joshing with the ghost of Glover, asserts in It’s a Sad Place, the Country:

The eldest son riding on the back
Of his father’s ute says to himself, that magpie
Will guard my soul.
It’s a sad place, the country. Earlier
This morning his father had a word with
The bathroom mirror, here we go.

The burden of the farm will rest
On this child’s little shoulders one day
But his thoughts are somewhere else,
He’d like to hug himself around one of those sheep,
Squeeze it like a beach ball.

The three of them are headed out
To a paddock somewhere, where willows bank
A dry creek, resigned.
His younger brother yells over the noise,
In a fight, who would win over who,
A toi-toi or a flax bush.

A toi-toi or a flax bush? The economist Maynard Keynes asserted ‘worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally’. The public valuation of contemporary poets and songwriters bears this out. While Jeanne Bernhardt waits outside the Koru Lounge for her boarding call, Jenny Bornholdt soars on the updraft of puffery such as Bill Manhire’s: ‘I don’t think a better poetry collection will be published anywhere in the world this year’ (NZ Books, June 2003). While Dave Dobbyn is that most tired of accolades, an ‘icon’, Peter Stapleton is known locally only to his bandmates and landlord. In The History of Rock Music Ivy League scholar Piero Scaruffi passes by honest Dobbyn’s jingles, observing of the Finn brothers’ effervescent intermezzi: ‘Both are decent exercises in pop songcrafting, but thousands of melodic songwriters around the world have been doing the same since World War II’. Yet he notes:

The saga of the bands built around Scorched Earth Policy's drummer Peter Stapleton was one of the most intriguing and influential of New Zealand. He joined forces again with guitarist Brian Crook for the second album by the Terminals (1), the spaced-out Touch (1992), derailed by tribal drumming and dissonant organ. At the same time, Stapleton recorded the Dadamah album with Roy Montgomery. Flies Inside The Sun (1) were born from the ashes of Dadamah (Stapleton, Pieters, Crook and guitarist/keyboardist Danny Butt), but An Audience Of Others (1995) and especially Flies Inside The Sun (1996) dramatically increased the degree of improvisation and cacophony. In fact, Stapleton, Pieters and Butt recorded the even more abstract Sediment (1996), this time credited to Rain; and then the trio of Stapleton on drums, Pieters on bass and Dead C's Bruce Russell on guitar formed (a free-noise "supergroup") [and] recorded the six instrumental improvisations of Last Glass (1994). Finally, Stapleton and Pieters launched the project Sleep with Enfolded in Luxury (1999). []

None of this stuff is considered ‘radio friendly’ so it receives neither funding nor airplay, although it contributes more to our international profile than either the local icons or the soft-target NZ Idol wannabes who deface mall walls with their billboard grins. In April 2004 the Californian sculptor Sam Durant commissioned Sleep for music to accompany several European shows; in May Bruce Russell performed with The Dead C at Le Weekend in Stirling, Scotland. So what? If the New Right was more than an ideology of economic prejudice then we might venture that Stapleton & Co advance brand awareness in our target markets. Awareness is a rare commodity. When popular music migrates across the territory of poetry it is usually to oversee commonplaces (in their interviews Matthew Bannister and Hamish Kilgour comment on this tendency), however Peter Stapleton is a literate lyricist whose words simultaneously avoid plain-speaking cliché and the accretion of cool. Reading Scaruffi’s valuation we recall the late Bruce Jesson:

You can see my problem as a New Zealand nationalist. How do you develop a sense of identity among people who lack any originality or confidence in themselves? Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that we are entirely a nation of mediocre and timid conformists. I have known plenty of New Zealanders who have been well-read, intellectually-stimulating, non-conformist, courageous and sometimes eccentric. They have tended to be marginalised, however. There is something about the structure and culture of this country that fosters the mediocre conformist.

Jesson is too narrow: there is something about the structure and culture of every country that fosters the mediocre conformist. That ‘something’ is the systemic embodiment of the individual’s desire for acceptance. Endeavour is supported on the basis that the mediocre will reach the greatest number. What the mediocre can’t do is contribute to the greatest good; that function is performed by the marginalized, which is why the musicians who were denied commercial airplay twenty years ago maintain international reputations and are now celebrated on the Dunedin City Council’s official website:

Since its emergence in the early eighties, the "Dunedin Sound" has taken on a mythological quality, revered by some as a classic era in Dunedin and New Zealand music and fondly remembered by others as simply a good time…If you ask people to describe or explain the "Dunedin Sound" you are not likely to receive a simple answer. A number of interesting terms arise including "guitar pop", "indie pop" "garage" or "jangley guitar music". However most give up on definition and prefer instead to name the creators of this "Sound", a list that usually includes The Clean, The Chills, Sneaky Feelings and The Verlaines. [Vernon McCarthy ]

Why privilege the marginalized? Because that idolatrous abstraction ‘the market’ partakes of fashion no artist who creates out of an argument with the self can ground work there; to try is to build on proverbial sand. To market, to market, to buy a plum bun;/Home again, home again, market is done. The mainstream does not understand how to relish doubt. It requires that the universal default to the banal and applauds populist performers like Runga, Camp, and Colquhoun for their undoubted ability to perform topiary on the known (never mind the unknown). Hardy seed sown by the marginalized, doubt cross-fertilizes the generations: it is always germane, whereas certainty withers on the wire. If our brows are furrowed it is because doubt is a stock that carries its share down the years.

As poetry and music originate in contemplation they occasion sensation by taking on the musculature of a formal language – but their articulated skeleton is silence, which is heard as a question. In both genres timing is, literally, of the essence. Obviously what separates Otago from Auckland is population density, which affects the perception of time in both the artist’s person and the work. Apart from the timely example of Rob Allan at Karitane it appears impossible to fast-cut in the frost. Most of us like to take our time rather than being taken by it.

The Dunedin Sound’ was rendered suspect by its very success. It became a label that permitted what Renato Poggioli calls ‘a double longing after innocence and happiness’ to codify, courtesy of music journalism, into aural prejudice. But Hamish Kilgour, Martin Phillipps, Matthew Bannister and Graeme Downes refuse to be cast; in their middle years they continue to cut a path through the dark wood. So this feature won’t subscribe to a Golden Age:

Could the fullness of humanity ever
have happened within the confines of the Garden?’
I’m reading to Joanna, backed into a gate
at Seacliff. Rusty padlock, rusty chain,
the land falling away. The asylum is empty.
[Bernadette Hall, Shaddai]

‘The best’ - an artifice that is mistaken for the cultural corollary of natural selection - is a cartoon notion. What follows is not a report on the survival of the fittest: if it was then Nigel Bunn, Ruth Dallas, Tristan Dingemans (Kahu/HDU), Adrian Hall, David Holmes, Michael Jackson [the other, better one], Graeme & Peter Jefferies, Graham Lindsay, Matt Middleton (The Aesthetics), Richard Reeve, and Matthew Thornicroft (Suka) would be on prominent display in the cyber equivalent of vitrines, where they would be further distorted by the caption ‘Star Attractions’. Instead Capital of the Minimal presents two dozen odd (perhaps very odd) artists from among hundreds in Otago who are committed to being more than popular. They have their fans, and many understand how to work (up) an audience – but all pursue the rewards of the material rather than material rewards, although they are not indifferent to the latter. They live in the capital of the minimal. They live on the capital of the minimal. They are the capital of the minimal.

David Howard
Purakanui, June 2004

© David Howard 2004

Last updated 14 July, 2004