Michael Morrissey is unwell. He looks back on his writing career
My name is Michael Morrissey. Since 1978 I have published 24 books – a combination of 13 books of poetry, two books of short stories, four novels (two in one volume), a memoir of madness and edited five other books, plus numerous uncollected poems and stories, approximately 1000 book reviews, plus many articles and essays. If there are any eager publishers still circulating in the cultural limbo of Aotearoa, I have four unpublished novels, one of 400,000 (!) words entitled Rides at the Zoo, centred around Jamuna and Rajah, former elephants at the Auckland Zoo, stretching over 4000 years. Plus, I enjoyed two visiting fellowships to the US, was New Zealand’s official representative at the World Conference of PEN staged by Norman Mailer, and organised a book launch of fantastical proportions.
I owe a lot to my father’s Irish fairy stories – revisitations of Gaelic mythology – told to us on winter nights over a warming blue-lit coke fire. Another story teller in my early life was the headmaster at Westmere School, Ken MacLaurin, father of Griff MacLaurin, who perished bravely in 1936 while manning his machine gun post during a retreat from Casa del Campo in Madrid in the Spanish Civil War while fighting for the International Column against Franco. He was probably the first New Zealand martyr to the cause of fighting fascism. And then there was John N. Thomson, a speech and drama tutor taught by C Day Lewis. Smartly dressed, with a magnificent speaking voice, he used to visit our school once a week and introduced working-class Catholic boys to the great English romantics, to Shakespeare, and to the art of public speaking: he would get a boy on the podium and toss him a word and ask for a response.
My origins as a writer rest on these great story tellers.
One day in 1963 I met Kenneth Maddock who later became a professor of social anthropology at Macquarie University and an authority on Aborigine societies. A few days later he invited me to join him for a drink at the Clarendon Hotel with a few like-minded fellows. Hence, I became a member of an anarchist group partly led by Maddock but mainly by Bill Dwyer, an Irishman with a wonderful orator’s voice. When he spoke in public at Myers Park (legally approved anarchism!), he declared the Queen a bludger and the YMCA a brothel. Bill’s rhetoric resulted in a massive fine. Or was it a month in prison?
In 1967, I became the editor of Craccum. My major achievement was a long article defending the use of marijuana and LSD. That same year I had a poem accepted by Bob Dudding, editor of Landfall. I felt I had truly arrived on the literary scene. Soon after I sent Dudding a short story. He decided I had potential and accepted it for Islands, the magazine he had founded in 1972 after he parted company with Landfall. In the end he published seven of my stories plus poems and reviews. Dudding was the fairest and most impartial of editors – there was no school of Dudding – everyone had an equal chance of being included. We played many a game of table tennis on his lopsided old chipped table. On occasions when was in a cheerful mood he would tell me he would publish, sight unseen, the three poems I had just submitted, if I won. It was understood this was a form of kidding and his intellectual honesty would not have allowed such a Draconian deal. But he would quietly murmur for my ears alone – “You’re doing me a lot of good,” meaning, as I subsequently learnt, respite from ongoing depression. In even more generous mood he would say, “I think you’re good,” referring to my literary gifts.
Around that time I met John Yelash, a mountain of a man, who was a wonderful reciter of the classics of English poetry, and Neil Illingworth, scriptwriter. Neil became a close friend and helped me establish the Waiheke Summer Writing School some two decades later. When our party would arrive at Palm Beach famous for its nude sunbathing, Neil would declare, “Prudes to the right, nudes to the left!”
In 1978 I published my first book of poetry. I was going to call it Love’s Half House which I thought had a nice intellectual ring but Tony Beyer, a poet I admire, suggested calling it Make Love in all the Rooms. When a friend visited and asked me how rooms I had made love in I replied, “Two.” He said: “Well I’ve made love in four and I don’t even live here.”
In 1979, through the kind patronage of Peter Simpson, I won the first writer-in-residence position at the University of Canterbury. My first book of short stories won the first prize for the best new book of fiction in 1982. Once more I felt a sense of arrival.
In 1985 I was given a fellowship to the University of Iowa. The generous allowance provided me the opportunity to go to New York. I had Susan Sontag squarely in my sights. Having written the provocative essay “Notes on Camp”, and penned the sentence “The white race is the cancer of human history”, she was greatly in demand as an intellectual panelist. When I went to a panel held in Harlem at which she was listed as a participant I scanned the faces in vain for her characteristic mop to no avail: she was ill. Cancer. But I received a phone call from the director of the International Writing Programme inviting me to join her group for dinner. I arrived at a fashionable restaurant buried in the heart of deepest Manhattan. Seated at the of the table was the guest of honour, Ding Ling, a prominent left-wing novelist, and seated at the other end, majestically maned, Susan Sontag.
Ding Ling (75 to my 39) began flirting with me.
The translator must have noticed my glance at the Sontagian eyebrows for she said, “Swap places?”
After I introduced myself, Sontag asked, “Are you from Auckland?”
“Yes. I – ”
“Do you know any jazz clubs?” Ding Ling called out.
“No,” I called back. “I don’t know New York.”
“Can I give you a call?” I said to Sontag. “I’m only in New York a short while.”
She wrote down a number. According to a man in a wheelchair it was the number she “never answered.” But I called several times, and on one occasion when she answered it, she told me she was half way through a sentence. And then she had to visit a friend in hospital. On a later call, a small girl daringly told me the address. When I visited, a head appeared 20 feet above the pavement who told me Ms Sontag was at the opera. Then a Polish translator told she was seeing no one (except professionally).
Obviously, a spirit with less resolution than mine would have given up. However, I rang again, she answered, and invited me to visit. Her apartment was as stygian as a coal mine. We had a short chat about whether Donald Barthelme was a modernist writer or a postmodern writer which she denounced as re-packaging. Then she told me another writer would be calling in a few minutes. She had given me 15 minutes then left me squirming in the dust of Gary Indiana.
I also had a phone number for Kurt Vonnegut.
In December 1944 Hitler’s armies invaded through the Ardennes forest in a last desperate attempt to stop the Allies. Caught by surprise, 6000 American troops were taken prisoner including 19-year-old Vonnegut. He was put to work making malt syrup for pregnant women. When the fire bombing began, he took shelter in a meat locker three stories underground. Next day he found Dresden destroyed. He had to help dig out bodies. A quarter of a century later he published Slaughterhouse Five.
When I rang, Vonnegut answered the phone, proposing lunch. The success of Slaughterhouse enabled him to buy the only house in Manhattan. We met outside his solitary dwelling house, flanked by skyscrapers.
Vonnegut was a man’s man – six feet one, wide-shouldered, flat stomached. Restaurants were only 50 metres away. “Kerouac was ugly towards the end,” Vonnegut reflected over his tomato juice (I had been hoping we could have spent the afternoon getting drunk but it was not to be: he had a play to write.) “He would get drunk and try to pick fights with people.”
The given theme of the World Pen Congress that year was “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State”. Every writer except Vonnegut opined that the state had no imagination. Vonnegut’s rebuttal was brilliant: “When I was in the army, I was asked to divide a chunk of chocolate equally between 200 men. Wasn’t that the imagination of the state?”
I arrived 10 minutes before my appointment with Saul Bellow at one of Chicago’s leading bookstores. Bellow arrived a minute later – a small compact man with pitilessly intelligent eyes. I had been told this was not to be an interview which left me wondering what I could say to the great man. In just a few minutes he made his attitude to me clear. I was a naïve simpleton who needed to be clued in as to the true state of politics: “They’ve got no time for us, you know that, don’t you?” He meant big business, the military complex, arms dealers, Cold War mongers etc. However, we parted on good terms.
When it came to my turn to ask a question at the Congress with an empanelled Bellow, I noticed that Nadine Gordimer stood one ahead of me. Behind me was Salman Rushdie and behind him Gunter Grass. More than enough literary heavyweights to make a boy from a Mt Roskill South state house go wobbly at the knees. Grass challenged Bellow about his “pockets of poverty” description, of America and was duly dismissed. Rushdie asked why America’s writers had not faced the task of dealing with its behaviour towards the rest of the world. “Writers don’t have tasks,” spat Bellow, “That’s for people in offices. We have inspirations.” When I asked him where did we go from here, he replied, “If you’d read my novels, you would know.”
Then there was the time I staged the world’s largest book launch. It was for my 1997 novella Terra Incognita 1526, which portrays the Spanish caravel the San Lesmes supposedly blown off course as far south as New Zealand; the book was part of a two-novella series entitled Paradise to Come. The launch featured a ship of 60 feet in length armed with cannon and carrying not only its own crew but a batch of Spanish conquistadors – historical enactors, dressed and armed accordingly. The Breeze would round North Head and disgorge its armoured warriors into a long boat which would row ashore to Narrow Neck Beach and meet a Māori war party. A clash would ensure – but it was all play acting. No one would be hurt. It took six months for me to plan the spectacle, and was watched by 2000 people. Raising the required $10,000 was a nightmare for a broke poet. Barry Colman, millionaire publisher, came to the rescue with $5000.
But as the long boat was pulling in, a lone Māori [Arthur Harawira] armed with a taiaha appeared. I had no idea who he was or what he intended to do. I was soon to find out. As the conquistadors strode into the shallows, he advanced upon them and hit them.
I had to do something. Stealing myself for a blow (or blows) from the taiaha I advanced on the assailant. The Knights Draconis, who had no stomach for real violence, had chosen passive resistance. I was alone in my stance. As he lunged toward me with his taiaha aimed at my throat, I retreated and called the police who arrived and promptly arrested him. He was fined a few hundred dollars for causing rust to one of the Knight’s armour.
A few years later I became manic. The old term manic depression is more accurate then the new term bipolar. During my second episode I had the following delusions:
- Anti-burglar parties. Lots of parties would diminish burglaries.
- Levitation. I felt I had so much energy maybe I could levitate. I went outside; didn’t move an inch.
- Write down all the important people in my life then write a novel using each as a character.
- The marriage of Ann and I represented the union of West and East. Its success meant world peace, its failure world catastrophe.
- I was the Second Coming, Jesus Christ, the son of God. Alas, no miracles.
- The whole of human knowledge was a vast blue ether and I was about to make a voyage across the galaxy. I would leave my body so that I would appear “dead”.
Mental illness doesn’t quite cover this rich cerebral circus. It was a fortnight before I remembered I was supposed to be a writer. All these beliefs passed though consciousness in a few days. Each were exhilarating but they accomplished nothing.
Madness via manic depression is a fascinating and creatively fertile condition that has yet to be fully explored. According to Kay Jamison in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament, it underpins the personalities of up to a third of poets particularly the great Romantics such as Byron, Coleridge, Keats and many others. However, in contra to Jamison’s proffered statistic, I am possibly the only well-known contemporary example in New Zealand letters.
I have treated of this mysterious condition in three formats – my memoir Taming the Tiger, in Costa Botes’ fine film Daytime Tiger and thirdly Poems from Hotel Middlemore, published by Roger Hicken of Cold Hub Press.
My wife Ann is my best friend. She has stood by me through bad debts, a low income, death rattle breathing, insanity over 15 years, and currently, cancer of the lymphoma. May it always be so. Thank you, Ann, a thousand times.
Cancer is as sly as a sleeping crocodile. Difficulty with a second eye operation lead to a deeper examination which revealed cancer of the lymphoma. I was plunged into the mysterious world of chemotherapy. One morning I woke up with a death rattle in my throat and a stomach as large as a woman six months pregnant. The ambulance came promptly and I was whisked off to Middlemore (sixth visit so far). My death rattle cured itself and my tummy deflated, but cancer was just warming up. I had a perforation in the bowel. Doctors with faces as long as bass fiddles told me it was “a very serious operation” and I could die. In the end it was decided not to operate. Declared fit for release, I was signed off. I am awaiting another CT scan too see if my cancer has shrunk. Hopefully so.
When I look back on my writing career, I think of close friends who have given generously of their time and editing skills ‒ Bruce Babington, Roger Smyth, Andrew Mouat, Anita Arlov, Tony Beyer, Bernard Brown, and Ian Wishart for hiring me as a book reviewer for 15 years for Investigate magazine, which enabled my library to double.
Enemies? Alas, I made quite a few of them. The late Warwick Roger (just about everyone’s enemy I would think); Patrick Evans, who wrote a scabrous review of my anthology The New Fiction in the Listener; and Matthew Harris, an academic who spent a lot of time attacking me in his thesis Metafiction in New Zealand fiction from the 1960s to the present day.
I have been mooted to have turned the corner on cancer – but you can’t be sure. I am working on finishing a new book of poems, a memoir of my Catholic childhood, a novel about my parents, and a novel about the anarchist group.
Let the good times roll.