There’s a running gag that the Wellington poetry scene consists of about 10 people: the five reading and the five listening, then the next week everyone swaps roles, and so on. This is a bit of a disservice to the vibrant poetic landscape we have in the capital, but it touches on why three wide-eyed poets – Rebecca Hawkes, Claudia Jardine, and myself – decided to undertake a poetry-reading tour across the South Island earlier this month, emulating the Sam Hunt and Gary McCormick tours of old. Choirs will always be there to be preached to, but nothing beats playing poetry missionary, converting the reluctant and meeting the fans and aficionados who simply don’t get the opportunities to see as much live poetry due to geographical inconvenience. Plus, we thought we might get a Speight’s, a crayfish and some cheese rolls out of it.
We all grew up in the South, and returned on a Friday, with the first order of business soaking in a spa at Claudia’s place while gazing over the Canterbury frost and deciding that yes, a young Gary McCormick was quite fuckable. Then we headed to the local rock shop, where Rebecca stocked up on semi-precious stones. It was the first of many rock shop stops on the tour.
Our Christchurch gig wasn’t until 10pm so we killed a couple of hours at the local comedy club, sitting through two hours of open mic comics. In hindsight this was a mistake. As someone in our tour party mentioned, at a certain point after you see 12 Gen X men get up on stage and joke about not eating pussy, you start to believe them. But if nothing else it gave us the confidence we needed to kick off our first show, and it went off without a hitch.
About 40 people piled into Little Andromeda theatre to watch us as a part of the magnificent Ray Shipley’s late night poetry hour. It was a remarkable feeling to read from our respective new books for the first time on the road – only slightly dampened by the fact that the crowd turn out to be tight-asses who don’t buy many books, although the show ended close to midnight so maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh.
We hit the road early the next day and made it as far as Rakaia. In Canterbury it’s illegal to drive through Rakaia and not stop for photos with the giant salmon. We duly abided, and arrived that afternoon in Oamaru to prepare for our matinee show at the Grainstore Gallery.
The Grainstore Gallery was filled with a thousand creepy masks and paintings of cursed figures that stared at us while we read our little poems. The papier-mâché faces made for an excellent buffer to the actual audience of only three people. Not all shows can be showstoppers. We took it in our stride, loaded up on cheese rolls, shook our heads disapprovingly at the steampunks lining the streets in their top hats and goggles, and headed south for gig number three.
Dunedin greeted us with a sun I did not think shone in July. We arrived at our lodgings, the world-famous Leviathan Hotel, a haunted, historic building that looks over Anzac Park. The hallways are exact replicas of those in The Shining, the carpet permanently smells of old cigarettes and every key opens every room, as we found out when a couple of drunk guys mistook our room for theirs at two in the morning. But still, it’s the only place where you can get a three-person room with bunk beds for $100.
The hotel was mainly empty except for a large cohort of senior citizens downstairs in the bar/tea rooms watching The Chase. Rebecca, known for her unorthodox cocktails (See: Mountain Dilk: Mountain Dew, Milk and Vodka, or Brothtails: OXO cubes, boiling water and a brown liquor of your choice), decided to make us Bourbon and Lemsips to get us in the mood for our show. We sipped our hot bourbon and steeled ourselves. Enthusiastic and decongested we were ready.
The Dunedin gig was excellent. Everyone who couldn’t be fucked watching the All Blacks packed into the cozy RDC cafe on George St. Dunedin crowds are always great, they’re open-minded and enthusiastic, and, despite often being poor students or poor academics, they buy books! A lot of them! Unlike those tight-wads in Christchurch. We retired to WOOF bar, packed to the gills with Dunedin creatives, queers and out-of-towners like us. A far cry from the student bars of old and a fitting end to a big Saturday.
Rebecca spent the next morning at the Dunedin rock shop feeding her habit and fawning over agate, while Claudia fossicked through thrift stores. I wandered through the Uni campus in the quiet contemplation of nostalgia when I got a call from Liz Breslin, the forgotten fourth poet in our tour party. She was all set to tour with us until she came down with the Novel Coronavirus. She said she was out of isolation and was well enough to join us for our grand Finale, that night in Timaru.
We picked her up from her North East Valley abode and drove north, Stopping at Moeraki a long the way to eat an entire crayfish for an obscenely cheap price, we arrived in my beautiful hometown of Timaru just before our 5pm show. The sky was pink and the mountains waved as we poured ourselves into Hector Blacks Bar, our venue for the evening. Long rumoured to be Timaru’s secret swingers club, Hector Blacks is filled with curios and oddities, windy passages, and hidden compartments. There is more taxidermy in this bar than I have ever seen in my life and we read our poetry on a stage next to a very formal 200kg wild boar in a top hat. The boar suited our vibe perfectly. I only wish we could have had him at our other shows for emotional support.
Our Timaru show was by far our most well attended. Never underestimate the ability of proud parents to peer pressure their friends. Swarms of 50–60-year olds turned up to their first poetry ever to watch a man they once knew as a kid make dick jokes and complain about Jesus. Claudia framed the evening perfectly, telling an uncertain crowd that, even if they didn’t weren’t poetry fans when they arrived tonight, they will be when they leave.
The reading went well. Liz Breslin only got into one fight with a retired accountant about capitalism. Timaru’s independent bookseller Renee told me my book is now the bestselling poetry book in Timaru. She then clarified that this is a “low bar”. My Dad’s mate Darryl admitted after a few Speight’s Summits that, even though he hated poetry his whole life, he’s now a convert. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the tour.
Everyone is Everyone Except You by Jordan Hamel (Dead Bird Books, $30), Meat Lovers by Rebecca Hawkes (Auckland University Press, $25) and AUP New Poets 7, featuring Claudia Jardine, Rhys Feeney and Ria Masae (Auckland University Press, $30) are available in bookstores nationwide.
ReadingRoom wishes bon voyage to Jordan Hamel on the eve of his departure to take up his Fulbright NZ General Graduate Award at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he will complete a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.