Pinned to the corkboard of the writer-in-residence’s office door is a line drawing of two young boys with cigarettes in their hands. The drawing is called naughty boys smoking. I’ve been knocking on this door about once a week since March, pestering Chris with my poems and making the odd severe comment about his. I’ve been very lucky to have him as a supervisor: Chris is serious and ruthlessly discerning, especially about poetry, but he is also compassionate and wickedly mischievous.
We have a coffee and a smoke and then Chris puts on his sunglasses so he can look out the window at the harbour and the bright day. I turn on the tape recorder…
A: Ok, maybe we’ll just warm up by talking about Pemmican. So Chris, these lovely little books — these beautiful books, when did you start making these? Tell me the story of Pemmican.
C: The story of Pemmican… Pemmican started up in the spring of ’97. It stared up with a conversation I had with Harry Ricketts and Brendan O’Brien. I’d seen some of Brendan’s books…
C: He handprints his, doesn’t he?
A: Yes, he has a letterpress machine. I had the thing of Black South that I wanted to publish, and I remember talking to Harry, and he had a little collection that he wanted to publish, so he said, well, why not do two?
A: So that was 13 Ways?
C: Yes, Harry’s collection was 13 Ways.
I typeset it, because I’d learned to use PageMaker when I was working for the Catholic Aid Agency Caritas. Brendan printed the covers for us on his letterpress and we made about 45 copies of each. That started Pemmican Press.
And then we thought, well, let’s see if we can publish people who are not, you know… their first collections. So I think I had a yarn with Bill — or Harry might have, one of us did, and that kind of got the ball rolling.
We started with Ingrid Horrocks. Harry suggested her collection, he’d read it, and we published that, and Bill Sewell, and Mary McPherson’s first collection, and Lyn Davidson’s first collection, and it went on from there, once it got momentum. We have little launches as well, with Unity, or Victoria Books and kind of get people started with a little book.
A: You hand-bind the books.
C: Yes, they’re hand-bound in linen thread, which is really tough, and it’s very simple, it’s a very simple low-technology binding technique. And it works; I’ve never had a return.
A: So part of the appeal of Pemmican is getting work out for people, but is part of the appeal also the tactile making of the books, or is that just something you have to do?
C: I like making them, first and foremost. That’s an important part of it.
Also, with the A5 format, it’s actually quite a generous page to put poetry on, even in 12 point. One of the things I really want to do is have poetry that looks really good on the page, with a nice relationship of title to body text, to the space around it and all the rest. That’s important to me. And that self-, home-published thing, using that format allows that to happen.
A: So, the things that you publish. Are these collections that hopeful people send to you, or are they people that you know, a more kind of an organic process?
C: Initially, I remember asking Bill if he had some promising students and things like that, and then once Pemmican got off the ground, and we got copies around the place, we were quite regularly getting manuscripts in. I don’t think we really accepted many unsolicited manuscripts…in fact, we didn’t accept any, to be quite candid with you.
A: So there’s a warning, you aren’t a soft touch!
C: No, we weren’t a soft touch and also, you can imagine the varying quality of the verse that’s sent in unsolicited.
But on the other hand, being a publisher is part of that clearing business of people touching base, and getting their work at least a basic assessment, and some sort of feedback, which is what we’d always do. So it’s just being part of the process really, from that point of view.
A: When you say, we, that’s you and Harry…
C: Yes, Harry and I, we’re basically the editors. Harry’s really good at proofreading and all that stuff, but between the two of us we assess the manuscripts and make a decision about publishing them. So we’ve got that double discernment going on. But nowadays, we really are tending to do more small-scale editions of limited editions. The commercial thing really is quite demanding, once you get into it.
A: Especially if you are hand-stitching every order. Some books have sold quite a lot, haven’t they? Ingrid’s book sold well at Unity.
C: Yeah, Unity’s been our top seller. Ingrid’s book — I think, 280 so far, which is quite respectable.
A: So now, maybe, we could talk about Antarctica.
A: Antarctica. I know we can talk about this for a long time.
C: Where shall I start?
A: How about when you went down there, with Bill. Did you apply because you thought, “oh, that’s interesting,” or was it “I’ve always really wanted to go to Antarctica, and here is the moment?”
C: It was a very good conjunction: the Antarctica programme had been started, it was set up in ’97 by Tim Ireland at Antarctica New Zealand, and I applied for that first intake.
Bill was coming down because he was overseeing the set-up of the programme, and Nigel Brown the painter was invited. I applied and managed to get down there, because I’d done my South book, and published it here.
A: So the interest in Antarctica-what sparked it off?
C: I did a series on Antarctic things, based on Captain Scott for my folio [for the Creative Writing course at Victoria, 1993], and they were the ones I sent down for the Macmillan Brown and got that nice fat prize, and then I got the Stout Fellowship in ’94, and researched South.
Artists to Antarctica was an absolutely golden opportunity and I fortunately had a chance to actually get down there. The logistics of getting down are the thing that stops you. It’s difficult to get down in any normal circumstances; you have to be supported by a programme that can get you down. So, I was selected in late January of ’98, and flew down for just over a week.
A: And what you’re doing now is work based on that trip, which you’ve sort of been working on since you went?
C: Yes, that’s right. But, we did poetry down there. We did field poems. We wrote, because poets have to look busy.
A: “I’ll eat dog Nigel, but I won’t eat doggerel.”
C: Well, I think we all wrote a bit of that, but Nigel’s verse was particularly bad. But anyway it was good, because it made ours look good.
We all started writing down there, and when I came back, I started Heat, the first draft of my Antarctic piece. And now it’s a book that’s evolved from this year. I was able to do a draft this year, and now it’s changing yet again.
I think what happens is that, the more distant you get from a place… You have this sort of generator of poetry, in my case it was an actual trip which gave me an authority of sorts to write about the place. And also a whole variety of different things that linking or kicking off poems, and as time has moved on from when I was down there — it’s now four years down the track, well, almost five years — the fictional element of poetry has come in, the idea of how you arrange something like that and shape the final poem. In my case, it is turning it into a sort of mini-purgatorio.
Initially it was much more documentary, much more like Bill’s one, Field Notes: information and linguistics he’d taken out of the place and then shaped his poems around quite directly, with observations and meditations of course. In my case, it’s getting further from its source, but more involved in other things, and more mixed, and I actually really like that.
This whole year has been a chance to break some sort of mould I was in before, or some sort of idea of poetry I had, and move into something more exciting and more interesting for me. And the Antarctic piece has been with me all that time in its various forms, and it’s been a sort of barometer of, I suppose, where I wanted to grow in poetry-to move on from South and to push the boundaries a wee bit.
A: With the fictional elements…In Ornamental Gorse, there seems to be quite a strong divide between some of the poems which are very fact-based, or based closely around incidents, and then some of them which have fantasy elements, like An Apocalypse, and The Guardians. I was wondering about those, because they seem quite far away from what you’re doing now.
C: I think when you do a first collection… a lot of that was written really fast, as part of the folio. I was working full-time and you get quite intoxicated with writing and you’re keen to get your collection out, and you’re doing all sorts of things, without even thinking about it. You’re not worried about whether in a poem you are fusing emotion into it. I could criticise some of the poems there for not having enough of that fusion, but as I’m not required to criticise my own, I’ll bypass that.
But Ornamental Gorse was written quickly, like a stamp, to get something out. South was a much more meditative piece. I researched it and I did quite a number of drafts, and then, I sat down and wrote the final thing in ’96, with a grant, I think of eighteen grand from Creative New Zealand, which I lived on for a year. That was a real boost.
The poetry I’m getting to now, it’s much, much slower — although sometimes it speeds up. And sometimes, the process of going over it and the craft and the reworking seems to me to be the very heart of it now, as opposed to the inspirational intoxication of getting it out. The satisfactions I’m now getting are different, and that’s showing, I hope, in the verse itself. You need the chance to evolve and to serve your talent, and to find the boundaries of it, if you like, or at least to push it and see where it will go.
A: So, when you talk about it being a slow process now-maybe, leaving aside the Antarctic, the Lakes of Mars, let’s talk about another poem. Could you describe the life span of a poem: what happens first and then what do you do after that?
C: Well, I’m working on a poem at the moment about a Nobel prizewinner, a Kiwi Nobel prizewinner. Maurice Wilkins, who helped crack the DNA code. It’s a commission, so I can only really put so much time into it.
The first part is to research the poem, to gather materials from which I can make the poem. And that’s quite an easy bit. You go up and get books, and read and make notes, and just quickly absorb what you need to absorb.
Then, to turn that into a poem, you have to go through a number of drafts. So, it doesn’t really matter how you start, as long as you are sitting in front of a word-processor, or you have a pen in your hand. Then you can just go for it, and get stuff down. Then you leave it and come back to it when you next feel refreshed, maybe next day, and push something a little bit further in the poem, or write a whole new stanza that might be part of the poem.
So the process is really one of accretion, getting it all out, and then that slow business of editing yourself, working out what is authentic and what’s just fluff. That process is slow and painstaking, and often you do need, or it really helps, to have that critical thing — talking to someone like yourself: you know, “how does this read” — do an impact report.
A: Like a focus-group study. So, what’s fluff and what’s authentic? I get the sense from some of the things we’ve talked about over the year that you have a real feeling that there needs to be a moral heart to literature. Not in a prescriptive way, but that it needs to have an authentic voice, and to behave in a way that isn’t capricious, or flippant. Not that it can’t be funny or ironic, but that it needs to have some kind of weight or respect behind it.
C: Well, I think, I would share Seamus Heaney’s prescription, that poetry does have sort of pressure it can exert, an ability to push back against the reality of the world.
All works of art are moral in themselves, there’s a moral sense to all works of art. Even art that denies that is really only confirming it.
There is a sort of gravitas at the centre of me, which I sometimes have to work against. And that may be a Catholic sensibility; there may be a variety of things in that. Sometimes it may be too ponderous, or too weighty.
Capricious, I suppose, is where the poem itself becomes undisciplined. An example would be where you have conflicting metaphors in a poem that don’t work. They both may be attractive in themselves, but there has to be a certain discipline about the way you write and about the way you think — the way you present your topic, or your subject.
But then, I suppose, you write from the heart of yourself, and the heart is, in the Jewish sense, the sum of the energies — emotional and volitional and intellectual. There’s no sort of splitting or whatever. So the poem itself has some sort of whole, I suppose I’d say. Does that make sense? It sounds a bit metaphysical.
A: No, I think that’s good. It’s probably a good place to end. Is there anything else you want to add, Chris?
C: Well, I don’t think Billy Collins is a great poet, do you? I think he’s a gregarious American, who just hit the right formula, and um, really writes a bit too much… (Interview dissolves into laughter).