Peter Olds has a quizzical look, his eyes slipping away, quietly spoken, observant. Where did you get that coat, he asked me one day – he needed a new coat. I replied that it was an honour to have my jacket admired by an iconic New Zealand poet. He just half-grinned and said, don’t start that.
But he was unable to attend the recent Dunedin launch for what is very likely his last poetry collection, Sheep Truck. His health is very poor. His poems were read by local poet Jenny Powell. It was already dark at 5.30pm when guests assembled for the launch at the Athenaeum. They wore scarves and hats and woollen coats, and the temperature was a degree or two higher than outside. I bought a copy of the slight volume and wondered if Sheep Truck would have a sense of the wavering flame of an author near the end of his writing. Not so. The poems were sharp, boiled down to the core of things – the work of someone who still had something to say. There was also a poem called “Last Poem”:
All over the world poets of my age (or older)
are writing their last poems; some know it,
some don’t. I might write another poem
after this, but this is my Last Poem
Peter Olds was born in 1944. He chose or took a hard path. He was part of the bohemian scene in Auckland in the 1960s and 1970s and his poems of the time show their era, riffing off a beatnik, drug-fuelled existence. He never really integrated into conventional society and lived on the edges a lot of that time. He writes about that world in many of his poems, including his mental illness and experiences in the health system. Early on he went through a bit of a delinquent phase, booze and big old cars, which he wrote about, including a ’39 Ford V8 called Psycho. He also wrote later that it wasn’t really his thing. He tried songwriting. He tried art – and wrote he could have gone down that track, but preferred the ability to travel light with a pencil and notebook. But his books have featured his drawings and photographs.
He gave a reading at the Christchurch Town Hall in 1973 with a bunch of other young poets. Apparently the place went wild. Poets as rock stars! He knew the big names, received awards, commendations, published a stack of books over the decades. There was a gap in the 1990s but in the last 20 years he experienced a renewed output. He got poems dedicated to him – Baxter wrote a “Letter to Peter Olds” and so did Charles Brasch and Stephen Oliver. David Eggleton calls him the laureate of the marginalised. He was translated into Spanish by the poet Rogelio Guedea. He got a plaque on the Writers Walk in the Octagon in 2022, under the shadow of Robbie Burns’ statue – he’d written a poem about these plaques and a depressed, hungover statue walking off down the street years before, so a case of life sort of imitating art. The plaque he got was a tribute from an adopted home he described as a “city of psychiatric clinics, pubs and bookstores”. There was a symposium on him at the University of Otago in 2019. Yet he had an ambivalent approach to fame and success:
I scored the Burns Fellowship. After that
nothing was the same again.
The best friend I had was when I had nothing.
Peter has been walking the streets of Dunedin since forever. He documented them in his poetry, repeatedly, almost obsessively: “Dropping down the steps from Heriot Row into Elder Street,/Knox Church and Dunedin North spread out like a tray/of hot cross buns …” He has an artist’s eye that is always interpreting the physical world, and a few years ago Dunedin’s City of Literature office published a small book that featured his photographs of Dunedin street scenes alongside his poetry. There is often a shock of recognition with a Peter Olds poem. He names streets, boarding houses, parks, pubs, cafes, and chip shops as the settings and tableaux in which his encounters with the world take place. There are heavy elements – death, madness, addiction:
Up all night grinding teeth on Doriden writing laments
to friends who drown in vomit of methadone and beer.
But there is a lightness when he documents human frailty and conceit, his own included. A hopeless one-way conversation with a deaf Hone Tuwhare in a rest home, over mutton pies; a doomed venture at the perfume counter to buy something special for a girlfriend; this gentle comedy sucks out bitterness and balances the sadness and struggle in his work.
You heard his name around the place. Peter Olds. His reputation was high but he wasn’t floating around on a cloud of past glories. He kept on writing. For the last decade he has been published by Roger Hickin at Cold Hub Press. A black and white photo of Olds on the cover of Doctor’s Rock (Caveman Press, 1976) shows a bony, no-nonsense young guy with luxuriant, wavy long hair. But in more recent years, when I saw Peter around Dunedin at the occasional reading, or more often in the street, he was not a dramatic or even noticeable character – just an old man, compact and tidy, usually attired in kung fu shoes, fleece and bucket hat, and sometimes sunglasses. He walked around a lot, haunted the public spaces and cafes. Years ago, I wrote a poem about seeing him sitting on the bench in George Street from the Normanby bus. It wasn’t a fantastic poem but it did capture something about him: “He looked like he belonged there/right at that moment/an entity of perceptive stillness/in the flow of traffic and general clutter.” I gradually found out more about him over the years. His poems contain a lot of his life. They don’t romanticise it but they don’t show regret for roads taken:
Yes, I chose this path myself
me and my guitar
no doubt a reaction to my father
who once famously said
‘You threw it all away!’–
(he never did understand).
I put up a new profile picture of myself once and a comment from Peter Olds popped up. “You look like the cop who busted me at the Wellington railway station in 1969.” He wrote about a conversation with James K Baxter:
I first heard about Jerusalem from Baxter himself.
We were standing on the corner of Cosy Dell
and Drivers Road and he was in an agitated state
like someone on an unnatural high.
Many Dunedinites would know that spot in the Town Belt, the dark shadowed trees, the dell not particularly cosy. Baxter telling the young, long-haired poet he had been called to Jerusalem. “I would like you to join me there when I get things set up./I believe God wants me to do this.” That’s the kind of thing that would have a big impact at that stage of life – a bearded poet-shaman with burning eyes staring at you on a street corner in Dunedin … asking you to join him on God’s instruction at a backwoods commune. As it happens, Olds notes he didn’t make the connection, not at that point. He ended up in Cherry Farm mental hospital “not able to go anywhere anyway”. God was in the background for Olds, in full flight from his respectable Methodist background, and that’s where He seemed to stay.
One day on my way back from lunch through the Centre City Mall, I came across Peter sitting deep in conversation with Auckland/Dunedin poet Michael Steven. I don’t believe in all that handing on the baton stuff but it was a great sight, the two writers separated by a generation or more, but part of a certain tradition, a certain way of doing things, of being in the world. We have waved goodbye to the days of the Great White Seer, but these dudes sit with where they came from, that great tribe of the Pākehā working class, both the respectable side of it and the harder, seedier side, the damage and wounds of the male world and the expectations that accompany it. The emotional and social constrictions and deadening, that both poets are in constant struggle with in their work. There they sat, amongst the glassy echoes and white light of the mall, surrounded by the flow of mild faced Dunedin shoppers. I stopped and interrupted them with some blather and insisted on taking a photograph.
Peter put up with it; having a guy who looked like the cop who busted him in ’69 taking his photo probably wasn’t the worst of it.
I wanted to tell you: When we die
we have no stories left to tell
best say them now
while we still have the chance
Sheep Truck and other poems by Peter Olds (Cold Hub Press, $20) is available in selected bookstores. Publisher’s blurbology: “Subjects include flying, dental treatment, encountering Charles Bukowski in the Dunedin Public Library, and not wanting to get out of bed.”