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Poetry Kit Magazine Interview

Iain Britton

1) Tell us something about yourself.
Rau rangitira ma
Kia ora koutou katoa - Greetings
For those people who don’t know New Zealand/Aotearoa geographically (and many do think the country is a part of Australia or at least attached - which it isn’t) I was born and educated in Palmerston North, an inland university city in the lower North Island. After a brief taste of tertiary life, I left for the UK and spent many years living in London during the 70’s and then in Ringwood in the New Forest, teaching EFL in Bournemouth. I returned to New Zealand to take up a teaching position in a predominately Maori community on the east coast of the North Island. Further positions eventually led to a major move to Auckland where I am now the Maori StudiesDirector in a large boys’ school. During this time, marriage, 3 children, mortgages have also added dimensions to my life...and we’re all still together as a family!
2) How/When did you start writing?
I think I was 18 or 19 when I first had poems published - in local university journals. Then, there was an enormous hiatus as I set about experimenting with all sorts of genre. Confined to a small single bedsit near the Gloucester Road tube station, I began to read and read...anything. I wanted to learn all I could about writing. In those years I wrote about 7 novels and tried to publish all of them. I remember my parents even delivering a manuscript to Faber and Faber. None was accepted, but it was a huge learning curve. The novel writing went on spasmodically until the very early 90’s and suddenly it died, pen down and that was that. Also I had been writing heaps of plays of all kinds and had a few performed by amateur groups in NZ, but my efforts were very influenced by Beckett and Pinter and they never really developed. In London, I was exposed to some fantastic theatre and thought I might give playwriting a go. Again, this suddenly stopped, but I still think I could offer something in this area as I have some ideas which I might work on in the future. However, my love of poetry never diminished and I was always ‘playing around’ with it - reading, writing, trying to publish it. One night I was in a pub, drinking with a friend who was about to leave for Wales to get married, when I decided I wanted to be poet. In a trite kind of way, he asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I told him...surprising myself as I blurted out my wish. From then on my commitment was total...and again I went into intensive study mode, learning about what constitutes a great poem compared to a very ordinary one.
3) Was there anything that particularly influenced you?
Nothing or no one really influenced me - the desire to be a poet was always there, I believe - very deep down - but I just wasn’t ready. I hope I’m ready now. Certainly the poems are being produced and fortunately being published. If you’re asking about the influence of other writers - yes, there have been many. Again whilst living in London I became a frequent visitor to the Institute of Contempoary Arts in the Mall. I went to many talks, readings and exhibitions. In those days the ICA seemed more accessible than it is now. By that I mean, it was free to visit, to walk around and buy coffees or drinks and meet friends. I had the great fortune to see and hear many great writers like Tennesee Williams, Robert Lowell, Auden, Spender, Gunn, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Octavio Paz Joseph Brodsky and many more. In recent years, a vast range of groups and movements have had some say in the development of my poetry eg the postmodern Anglo/Irish, the New York Schools, the Black Mountain people, contemporary NZ poets and others. I’m constantly reading quality new work and it all has had an influence of one kind or another.
4) Do you have strong influences on your writing now?
I hope not, but that is very difficult, even for the best of poets. I’d like to think new voices in my poetry are emerging, that something individualistic was realizing itself. I do reread poems by Paul Muldoon, Tom Clark, August Kleinzahler, Robert Creeley, Lavinia Greenlaw, Matthew Caley, Daljit Nagra - you name them. I will have read even the very new ones in our latest literary magazines.
5) How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing?
The whole thing focuses on how to balance out my time between teaching, being a husband and father and wanting to get on with writing. With only 24 hours in the day, all this becomes a juggling act. The best way to describe my approach to writing is one of ‘snatching’...snatching at moments/minutes in the early morning and then again late at night. So, in these precious times, I work in a very concentrated manner - when there is quiet and nothing to distract me.
6) Do you make much use of the internet?
Yes, the internet is my contact with what’s happening in the outside world as far as poetry goes. In New Zealand, poets live far from the international literary ‘action’ and the internet allows that access. For me, it’s very important to know who is currently writing good poetry, what events are going on and when and where hard copy and online magazines are coming out. I also set aside some time to ‘surf’ sites, but this is a necessary discipline I try and keep to a minimum. The Poetry Kit is an integral part of that surfing.
7) Why poetry?
Simply, it is what I want to do...and to be good at it. Most creative people can’t help themselves when it comes to self expression...I don’t think they like to analyse the process too much, but get on and get it out of their systems, whether it is painting, sculpting, glass blowing, graffiti writing or playing an instrument. Writing poems is a compulsion and I enjoy the challenge - sometimes I’m pleased with the end product, sometimes I’m not. I am constantly revisiting my efforts and changes to old and new poems are always inevitable.
8) Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to say something about NZ poets and the poetry they write. Names like James K Baxter, Bill Manhire, Allen Curnow, C.K Stead, Katherine Mansfield, Kapka Kassabova, Lauris Edmond and Fleur Adcock, would be known to certain groups of UK readers, but generally our poetry is confined to these islands and those countries of the Pacific Oceanic Rim, with literary forays elsewhere by individual poets wanting to publish their work beyond those boundaries.
NZ has the great advantage of being able to assimilate all that is happening in the poetry world by letting the Northern Hemisphere influences, the schools of poetical thought, the movements, the groups - whether they are experimental, organic, confessional, semiotic or whatever, funnel down its long slender South Pacific throat. The poets siphon off what best suits them and then produce poems which are uniquely theirs. Consequently, there are lots of excellent poets in the country and many are highly successful and, if promoted properly and if they wanted to, could do very well on the international literary scene. Youngish poets, such as Nick Ascroft, Anna Jackson, Michelle Leggot, Mark Pirie, Paula Green, Richard Reeves, Sam Sampson and James Brown are but a few of a diverse active body maintaining high standards of poetry comparable to anywhere in the English-speaking world.
Of course, there are many fine Maori poets writing in English and Maori too. The history of the Maori people and the naturally lyrical sound of their language has enabled them to adapt so easily to the written and spoken/sung word. Traditionally, all that they learnt and remembered was handed down through generations by word of mouth and by song and the usage of English in poetry has given them an extra linguistic dimension which only enhances their work. Hone Tuwhare is without a doubt the Maori Poet Laureate in this area, but there are a number of poets like Rangi Faith, Roma Potiki, Mahinarangi Tocker and Robert Sullivan who are writing a lot of stunning material.
Also, this bicultural bilingualism has been taken on board by Pakeha (NZ whites) writers and the Maori language has enriched their poetry too. It’s a privilege then to be a part of a very original and unique form of creative expression taking place amongst our people in every aspect of the arts. Hopefully, some of it will find its way to the UK so that a larger audience can experience and enjoy it.
No reira
Kia kaha, puritia kia u, kia mau ki nga taonga mo ake tonu atu.
So be strong, hold fast, hold firm to our treasures forever and always.
Iain Britton
This poem was written soon after a walk along a beach in Auckland. Many suburbs cling to the cliffs, offering superb views of smaller islands. Walkways give easy access to the reefs and curving sweeps of sand. Some homes reflect the visions of innovative owners, past and present, who captured fully the scene of sea and sky by designing and building places to suit the environment. One such property attracted my attention and this poem grew from there. It also reached the quarter-finals of a New York literary competition and was read at Poets House.
I hear the music of a donkey                                    
This stone throne                                                         
facing the sea was made by a small man                       
wanting to be a giant                                                                
or else he already was and wanted to be                                  
like myself                                                                   
terrestrially ordinary for a moment                                            
so that he could feed the seals
the humpback whales
the blue-eyed penguins
who had returned
for various reasons
to live in the sea
where their children
frolicked in the bodies of dolphins.
Climbing up amongst houses
Ferde Grofe’s
Grand Canyon Suite
resonates off walls. I hear the music
of a donkey
plodding downwards
gravity’s claws
pulling at his head and sack-cloth ears.
A stream has cut its name into a bank.
Stacked-up houses
peer at weather forecasts. I pass
a concrete bunker collapsing
without a shot being fired.
As I climb closer to the road
I feel a slow intrusiveness. Each
step is like a face I know. Each
obliterates the story of a man
who wanted to be a giant
wrote songs for himself
preferred his own voice
dived into the ground one day
bequeathing a cone of air space
crammed with sound.
Whenua is the Maori word for ‘earth/land/country’. Published in Jacket, this poem relates to the earth - the inlets around Auckland and my feelings of connection with the land we live on. In this case, I make a comment about how cheaply the land for the founding of the city was bought/taken from the local Maori in the early contact days of European colonisation.
Spent half last night
listening to Sylvia Plath
Ted Berrigan
the voice of Frank O’Hara
Charles Olson too
reciting his poetry -
breathy stuff
from the otherside -
electronically speaking.
Spent the other half
reading abstract poems
by living writers
who wallow in the coolness
of mud up to their necks
in estuarial water
like sun umbrellas
shading them from
bubbling into a
miasmic blackness.
This dirt
bought for the price
of an axe a blanket
a keg of whisky
a fucking song.
This city
crawling on its belly
into my mouth
I chew on...
Like chicken bones
I suck off the flesh
and pile up the streets
and buildings
for disposal.
Kneeling across you
fitting myself
into your open spaces
helps to remind me
of where I belong
meditating on the
of a flower
about 2 millimetres
from your breathing.
Magma printed this poem early last year. Something primal enters my thoughts here about conventional Christian religion and also my feelings for the land again.
About the size of a monkey
You shout
punching the wind
reciting alliterative words.
Your command of English
is bloody good.
I laugh at your ‘f’
We follow the path
walking worshippers
sniffing the sea’s
closeness the layered mud
the swampy grasses
tapping in their roots.
High and dry in Parnell
the cathedral sits
stuck in concrete
like a bloated ark.
You know God’s
there - we saw him at Easter
crouching beside
the organ - about the size
of a monkey - brown
and furred in his winter coat
picking at his skin.
Giddy with words
beginning with ‘h’
like heaven
and holy
like bloody hell
we climb up
amongst the houses
and pink magnolias.
HOME comes up
capitalised and yes
it’s a race hoofing uphill
to the gate.
Suggested in this poem is the Maori belief that when a person dies, his or her spirit begins the long journey back to their spiritual homeland “Hawaiki”. There are stopovers as they travel to the tip of the North Island, before they leap off and begin the return across the Pacific.
The brief belief of dead people
To create reality from abstraction to
see a clear definition I crouch
to take in the curve of the horizon.
A haze obscures the woman
you’ll become.
You play in the sand
picking for crabs for marine deposits
bits of fish the sockets of shells.
The tide’s out and
islands have appeared
will live for a day
become inhabited and die
when the moon moves on.
You play in the sand.
I walk on reflections of
towering nimbus
splintered sunlight
the brief belief of dead people
flying to perch in trees.
A heat haze drifts between your fossicking
and my screwed-up sight.
I call you to higher ground
where nothing appears to be
as it is.
A rainbow has formed
over North Head and I’m
having this dream
of who you’ll become.
I take my eyes off the horizon
and through many colours
a thick yellow sunset
loses its footing.
Again there is a Maori influence in this poem. The fear of night, the presence of the unseen, of being conscious of an all-pervasive female spiritual entity who needs to be respected for the various nocturnal roles which she plays.
A one-eyed village
Get out of the car
and show what it is
you want to show me.
I sense this huge face
staring down at us from
‘on high’. A gannet
shits on cloud-
gelled hair. An angel
enters left wearing
Dress for Less clothes
and is pointing with
a large road-sign finger
towards Manutuke
a one-eyed village
thinking about waking
pushing up its roofs
amongst paddocks
of kumara. A man
in a black singlet
who plays farmer
and missionary
stuffs up his lines
about being alive
and having to get out
of bed too early.
Show me what it is
you like about these
blocks of hills this
green mattress of grass
that river wind gushing
up the valley
and I’ll show you why
I can’t stand
driving in the dark -
forget about trying to read
by the stars.
Take that female out there
larger than life
nocturnal as an owl
and ugly on the loose
the night hugging her
she wants us to be
confrontational wants us
very much. Isn’t that
All the above poems will be published in a collection which is due out in early July 2005 published by Hazard Press Publishers, Christchurch, New Zealand.