A memoir of drinkies with 1960s literary men
In English I, our lectures included An Introduction to Shakespeare by Mac Jackson. Everyone loved Mac because he was gentle, he knew his Shakespeare, and he laughed or rather chuckled as he lectured. I decided he was it. I should try to be assigned to his tutorial class in English II. But no luck. I was assigned to CK Stead, who I could see was terribly clever, but I felt with his clear, stainless-steel mind he would cut right through any observations Miss Kemp might tentatively make and she’d be in slivers. Boldly, though inwardly trembling, I asked the departmental secretary if I might instead attend a Jackson tutorial and was granted that favour.
To reach Mac’s office you walked over the little stone bridge near the back of the Clock Tower Building. Come in! Mac would boom from behind his desk, with the emphasis on the in, his back to the window and facing the opening door, at your tentative knock. And in you’d go, new poem clutched in your hand, though later I’d often leave them in advance, in an envelope slipped under the door, so he’d have time to read them before I came to ask him what he thought, and we’d discuss it.
Once he left a note for me on the door in an envelope stuck with sellotape labelled Miss Jan Kemp in his amazing-looking, almost backwards as if medieval handwriting. Inside there was a little note. It read I liked this one very much. You seem to get everything right, just by instinct. Mac. I was over the moon. It was much better than the remark on my William Blake essay, when I’d written Mr Blake and Mac had circled Mr and written in the margin This word is otiose. I’d had to look up otiose in the dictionary to find out what it meant.
Karl Stead inaugurated a Friday evening drinkies session in the bar at the top of the building near Constitution Hill
Mac taught us all how to fold a duodecimo, which Shakespeare’s printers would have used, numbering the pages so that once folded, paginated, printed and stitched they came out in the right order, though when you spread out the single large piece of duodecimo paper the paginations seemed to be all over the place, totally at random. Mac was also a sleuth with concordances and proved who had written which parts of Arden of Faversham by analysing the vocabulary and the typefaces, for some single type-pieces would be broken and recognisable when they were reused by the writer’s printer. This statistical work contrasted with his wonderfully heart-felt reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Karl Stead inaugurated a Friday evening drinkies session in the bar at the top of the building near Constitution Hill, where Sam Pillsbury, who had lived next door to Benny D in Howick, flatted with some friends in a house built halfway up the very steep hill. I popped in there sometimes and once saw Benny D again, and we had a nice chat. He was working in an office in town. Not the kind of person Karl would know or invite to the drinkies. No, it was his mate, the historian Keith Sinclair, and people like Michael Morrissey, with his rumpled curls and friendly, intoning, never-stopping ramble of thought, and who was now our rent collector at 60 Grafton Road and so earned himself free lodgings for himself and his wife Dot and their daughter by being the janitor.
At one of these meetings Karl said to me And when are we going to have an affair, Jan? I knew he was just being clever, so I managed to be just as clever and answered him, When you take the same emotional risk I would, I will, Karl, which shut him up. I hope he was impressed by my quickness of wit. I was. I learned lots from Karl, though — once I told him I couldn’t possibly attain, sustain and retain the amount of knowledge I really should. Very wisely he said, The things you need to know will come to you and stay with you. The rest, you just let fall away. Those words have come back to me so often — just do your own thing. The rest will take care of itself.
One day the phone rang, and it was Murray Edmond, born in Hamilton in the same year as me, whom I knew along with his wife, Mary Paul, of the Paul’s Bookshop family, from undergraduate days at Auckland University. Murray knew I wrote poems as well as that story that had come out in Craccum. Would I like to come and read some of my poems with other Auckland poets at the new Arts Centre on Grafton Road?
Somewhat trepidatious, I said I would. Some weeks later, armed with a sheaf of poems I’d typed up, I set off for the round concrete building set back from the street almost opposite Auckland University Press and down from 12 and 14 Grafton Road where Tony C, Riemke Ensing and Bill Trussell and others lived.
David Mitchell, a little older than us, with his round ha’penny spectacles and longish black curly hair, was the centre of attention. He had an absolute certainty about his work. He read sometimes in a high voice, sometimes in a low one, sometimes demarking passages in a stilted way as in “my lai/remuera/ponsonby” to show the contrasts between the dreadful Vietnam War massacre in 1968 and his loved girlfriend she, in the kitchen boiling an egg.
Someone, perhaps Murray who was studying Drama and knew how to present things, had suggested we poets should sit on chairs on an upper dais ringed around the circle of the audience, who were divided into segments like quarters of an orange, leaving walkways facing two or three poets in each quarter. We’d spin a poem, which meant each poet would read a line from their own chosen poem, then round to the next poet for his or her line, then on to the next, and round and round making a new Dadaesque collision of style, voice, idea and rhythm. The audience lapped it up. We were local stars.
Ian Wedde, Alan Brunton and Russell Haley, who hated that CK Stead had once named him the only Yorkshire surrealist poet in New Zealand, were in cahoots
Perhaps Eleanor Horrocks sometimes read, perhaps she didn’t. Like me, as a woman reader she was a rarity. All the rest were men. Gentle Bob Orr was there, also a forty-niner like Murray and me. He’d been at school with my brother Pete at St Paul’s and his parents had a bach — the Orrs’ bach — on the road up the Thames Coast past Whakatete Bay. Bob was now a wharfie and wore shabby dress, so he no longer looked much like a St Paul’s boy, but he was a real poet. One from the docks. He adored Pablo Neruda, so we all read his great poem “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” and I vowed one day I would visit Peru — though by the time I could have, I decided not to, as it was overrun by tourists who came in such numbers it was damaging to the ancient site.
Ian Wedde, Alan Brunton and Russell Haley, who hated that CK Stead had once named him the only Yorkshire surrealist poet in New Zealand, were in cahoots and had worked together on the little magazine The Word Is Freed which Murray had asked me to contribute to as well. Sometimes there were verbal fights among the men: opinionated, young, certain of themselves, of their art and way of it, their tongues mightier than their fists. They’d argue and contradict and discuss and drink (mostly beer) on and on into the night, sitting on the floor of the tiny living room at, say, Russell and Jean’s house, wrangling. I wrote them a poem which, along with a few others, Murray first published in Freed.
Where do they all go?
these dealers in ice —
pitching back & forth
the jarred pick
stabbing at stunned ice-rock.
Recall — the stone blunts the scissors
recall — a blunt knife splints desperate scratches
on wedge-thick glass
recall — a keen blade knifes sharp through flesh
the wound knits well, leaving but the thinnest line —
a trace of fine cut:
a man and a man with rounded swords
fight a dubious battle —
sometimes the sun may thirst for the ice-rock,
drink in cool delicious flow;
the pick will fall from the hand
& maybe the man will stand near the man
& take the heat
& take it slow.
But who was I to try to tell them how to behave? In what I thought was a gentler, more understanding, more loving and female way? I too used ampersands and as much lower case as I could, as we’d been taught to by David Mitchell, anti-intellectual and anti-establishment as he was. We were making our own stand against the line-up of older white male poets and writers, Allen Curnow, CK Stead, Kendrick Smithyman et al., who ruled the roost and set the tone. They were New Zealand Poetry incarnate.
We were the young New Zealand poets and wanted to be recognised as such. Students flocked to our readings. And we heard from those who had Wellington poet friends like Ian Wedde that the old rivalry between Auckland and Wellington didn’t have to be carried on any longer in the way that Baxter and others had known it. Rhys Pasley and his fellow poets invited us to come to Wellington on the overnight train, to be met and put up at the various poets’ houses and flats, so that we could all read together at Downstage Theatre as the ‘Late Late Show’ after the play of the evening at 11 p.m.
Johannes was against it. Just you and all those male poets together on the train overnight and staying a night together in Wellington? But I had some small savings now from my teaching. I too was a poet. It was something I had been given to do. The others were my fleet brothers. Nothing was going to stop me going and doing it — no Johannes, no nothing. I was going to ride to shoot and to hunt like Melanion or I would have been no Diana.
A few of us decided to have a practice run by driving in various cars to Hamilton to have a rehearsal there. We all piled out at David Mitchell’s brother Stewie’s house, ate the meal he’d prepared for us, had our poetry reading and spent the night. There weren’t enough beds for everyone, so Murray and I slept in our travelling clothes, and shared a mattress, half in a cupboard with our legs and feet poking out of it.
All of us were soundly cheered, from intellectual Ian Wedde and witty Bill Manhire to Murray and Bob and Russell Haley with his surrealist images and sometimes shouting antics…We were a hit
A few weeks later, we gaily hired sixpenny pillows at the train station in Auckland — it was going to be a long journey. There were seven or eight of us, including Arthur Baysting and his dark-haired wife Jean, the artist. Mary Paul didn’t come as she was looking after the baby, Jacob.
The train stopped often, including at Huntly where we got out to stretch our legs and have a cup of tea and someone called out, Mercer! and quoted the famous ARD Fairburn line the squalid tea of Mercer is not strained — we all knew Shakespeare wouldn’t have minded at all. It was a long trip, some of us trying to nap, having slept only intermittently in Hamilton. Waking again, we’d chat or change seats to sit with someone else, then fall asleep again until finally we arrived at Wellington Station.
It was early in the morning. Time enough to get something for breakfast at the just-opening pie cart outside the station and make our way to our various digs all over town. Time for a shower and a change of clothes and a look around Wellington, a visit the Weddes’ house on the hill, then gathering for dinner downtown. At about 10pm we were at the door of Downstage, being shushed into silence by the usher because the play hadn’t yet ended, then shown into a waiting vestibule where all the coats were hanging. Half an hour later the clapping inside the auditorium ended and people filed out of the theatre, looking at us as if we were rather odd to be sitting there waiting for something, like Godot. Indeed, we were. And unlike with Godot, something happened.
Downstage had a restaurant as well as a small stage, so we sat in a semi-circle on that raised dais, with the audience, in pairs or fours, sitting slightly below us at small round tables with red-checked cloths and little lamps with even smaller red checks on their shades, each with a tiny chain with which to pull the light off and on so they could see their dinners and drinks.
It was good for us to have the stage spotlights, one haloing each poet as we read, for we needed them to shine on our manuscripts in that dark, clubby atmosphere. We were each given five minutes. When the light fell on me, I stood up and walked to the lectern and spread out my papers on it. Always better to keep your hands free — I am a bit of a gesticulator when I read or talk.
I first read the little love poem “Puriri” to get them used to my voice. Then a longer poem, “City sequence”, whose setting, I explained to the audience, actually begins in Wellington — my having learned from the Arts Centre readings to introduce a poem with a few words so as to orient the listener — and even tells of a visit I made to Wellington a few years earlier, determined like so many young woman students, to lose my virginity, though like many biographical details let loose, somehow it’s a story embedded in the poem’s texture, which could be read as truth or fiction.
The poem winds over five rambling pages, and documents time spent in both Wellington and Auckland from high school age, when I first took trips in the brown Howick bus to sit in the Auckland City Library, pretending to read, but watching, learning, listening, observing, taking it all in, life, the bigger picture, the world beyond family and school and hometown. Learning from experiencing life. That is what I wanted to do, so that I’d begin to know it as it is.
The audience loved it — my reading also, standing up there on stage declaiming the spoken word as I so loved doing, feeling always I was born to do this. This was my thing.
All of us were soundly cheered, from intellectual Ian Wedde and witty Bill Manhire to Murray and Bob and Russell Haley with his surrealist images and sometimes shouting antics, spinning off Alan Brunton’s acerbic asides. We were a hit. The next day there was a headline in the Dominion: ‘The Young New Zealand Poets Come Out at Downstage Theatre’. Arthur Baysting had been given both an epithet and the title for the book he would publish with Heinemann in 1973. It included 18 male poets and me.
To celebrate after the reading, we all found our way to a house on one of the Karori hills for a great party, full of young long-haired people, ourselves included, full of wine, beer, some cheap spirits, dope of all kinds — marijuana, hashish, whatever anyone had smuggled in — and loud rock music. We danced madly with one another, and when we were leaving to return to whatever digs we had, I saw two girls struggling with each other outside in the grassy dirt off the veranda, trying to tear the other’s hair out — a cat fight, as they say. Perhaps they were fighting over the same young man. Who did he belong to? It was a sad end to a happy, wild evening.
Taken from the superb new memoir Raiment by Jan Kemp (Massey University Press, $35), available in bookstores nationwide. ReadingRoom is devoting all week to Raiment. Yesterday we published a review; a sketch of one of Kemp’s lovers who was a star of the wild poetry scene in Auckland in the 1960s will appear tomorrow; and a feminist reading of the book is on Thursday.