I never set out to write a poem about Winston Peters. My previous book had a couple of sonnets about made-up characters, each in rhymed couplets, and I wanted to try another. The rhyme was a basic AA scheme and each line had to be seven or eight syllables. I suffer from iambic anxiety so didn’t try for meter. The form was sing-songy enough and long out of fashion, which is maybe what attracted me to it.
The name that inspired the initial draft and titled the poem was one I stumbled across online – Instant Peterson. He is/was some sort of Australian DJ. A skinny guy in a baseball cap. But Instant Peterson takes up a lot of syllables, so I quickly shortened him to Instant Peters. You can see where this is heading.
I had my seven couplets written before I gave in and decided to change the title to ‘Winston Peters’. Now he was the star of a poem that wasn’t about him. I’d conceived Instant Peters as an ageing groover. Stanzas 1, 3, 5 and 8 are from the original draft. At first, I liked the idea that people would read the poem expecting to find references to the Winston Peters they recognised and leave slightly perplexed. Part of me also felt there was an ageing groover inside Peters, which is why those four stanzas survived.
Quite late in the poem’s evolution (a couple of years), it dawned on me that a poem called ‘Winston Peters’ should probably have at least some details that connected to him. I cut three stanzas and replaced them with 2, 4 and 6. Apart from ‘Instant’ becoming ‘Winston’, the first and last stanzas remained the same.
I had scant knowledge to draw on for the new stanzas. My earliest memory of Peters is actually a sentence from the political column in The Listener. Something like “Peters’ X-ray vision lets him see ferries grounding in Cook Strait where others see only plankton”. It may have been written by Denis Welch, whose column I enjoyed. Peters was, it seems, a good opposition MP, perpetually harassing the government and uncovering scandal. Who can forget the Winebox Inquiry? Some people somewhere were guilty of something. Who can forget his appropriation of the Bob the Builder theme one election, the call and response of “Can we fix it?” / “Yes we can” resounding in rest-homes up and down the country? He gave over-65s the Gold Card, which, with the climate crisis upon us, may prove his most admirable legacy. People kept writing New Zealand First off, then Peters would get in again and hold the balance of power – and ‘the country to ransom’ we’d complain as we waited to learn which party he’d put into government. Who can forget?
Are people still charmed by Peters’ appearance? Journalists seemed to love his hair and pin-striped suits. So I put a pin-striped suit in a couplet. Then a friend I’d shown the poem to said he remembered a Peters’ quote he’d always liked: “Only a fool tests the water with both feet.” I googled it and ‘Winston Peters’, and up they popped. Turns out Peters trots it out regularly, sometimes even explaining it to people and attributing it to the British, though Google tells me it’s an African proverb. New Zealand First’s immigration policy is perhaps based on similar cultural misapprehensions. I had to include it. Adding a new couplet ruined my sonnet, if you consider a sonnet should have 14 lines. Could I fix it by cutting a stanza? No, I couldn’t.
My final connection to Peters comes through my father-in-law, who was president of the Cockle Bay branch of the National Party when Peters first stood for Parliament in Hunua. He lost, but amid rumours of irregularities – people voting twice, dead people voting (prefiguring his future constituents) – he demanded a recount. The result was overturned and Winston Raymond Peters MP snuck in by 192 votes. The rest would be history. He lost three years later, then National dispatched him to the safe seat of Tauranga. My mother-in-law went to his house to drop a good wishes card in his letterbox and Peters’ Chow Chow, as if sensing an anecdote, rushed out and bit her on the bum. Painfully. It didn’t make the poem.
Winston Peters was all there,
his cufflinks waving in the air.
His double-breasted pinstripe suit
cut a swathe and cocked a snook.
He palmed a coin to get us in.
His smile never left his grin.
Winston Peters had the rub
of bowling green and Cossie Club.
He said that he had little choice
if snowflakes settled on his voice.
‘They’re taking everything you owned.’
The Rita Angus frowned and groaned.
‘Only fools,’ he would repeat,
‘test the water with both feet.’
He made whoopee more than amends,
but Winston Peters was my friend.
The poem ‘Winston Peters’ features in the new poetry collection The Tip Shop by James Brown (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $25), available in bookstores nationwide. The book has broken into the latest best-seller chart.