Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
A Personal Memoir of David Mitchell by Michael O’Leary
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot Fighting in the captain's tower While calypso singers laugh at them And fisherman hold flowers Between the windows of the sea Where lovely mermaids flow And nobody has to think too much About Desolation Row
This quote from Bob Dylan’s famous epic anthem to ‘Bohemian’ high life and low life serves as a good lead in to the time I first met David Mitchell in the Auckland of the early 1970s. At the time I was living in a run down hovel with fellow poet, David Eggleton and a rag-tag gaggle of other artistes, including Tony Fomison, ‘Mad’ Mike Brosnan, our own version of Desolation Row at Number 8 Margaret Street, Ponsonby, and the Dylan song got played over and over as if we were trying to convince ourselves we were part of the song, ‘sniffing dream pipes/and reciting the alphabet’ no less. I was at art school at the time and was involved in DADA and Surrealism in thought, word and deed.
However, before I begin my own memoir proper I will call on fellow writer David McGill to fill in some earlier memories of David Mitchell and the Beat Generation:
David Mitchell was the most glamorous guy around Wellington coffee bars in 1960. He was the local Jack Kerouac, talking incessantly about the need to experience everything before you wrote about it. I was a young trainee teacher and university student who sat at the coffee tables where us groupies of both sexes listened to Dave rave. He was as full of juice as his mate James K Baxter, and way more attractive. He inspired me to write poetry, he critiqued my fledgling efforts . . . why not say 'money' instead of 'mammon'? I was proud that year to be in the Teachers College poetry publication 'Matika', right alongside David Mitchell, Baxter above us. The next year I edited the poetry magazine and David contributed magnificently. He created a character called Croup Botec we were all sure was destined to be world famous, this beatnik adventurer. David loved the American Beat poets, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, but most of all perhaps e e cummings, who I think inspired his love of word and sentence experimentation. He wrote poems that were like modern music, chopped up in crazy ways we could only gasp at. We knew he had the gift, not just of the gab, the gift of putting words memorably on paper. I played centre outside his second five-eight on the Kelburn footy ground. David was even then almost blind, he would pass the ball behind me. Yet he was a graceful and brilliant athlete, and the same poise he brought to rugby and cricket . . . New Zealand cricket captain John Reid picked him as one of the promising five players of the year . . . that poise and grace and gravitas alongside a wild and risk-taking libertine, a Byronic figure, it made David Mitchell the most charismatic person of my student years. – David McGill, Paekakariki, 2011
Now, from the Beat Generation to the Beatles Generation. I, of course, knew of Mitchell through his poetry readings and his newly published and highly influential volume of poetry, Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby. I had attended a reading at the Barry Lett Gallery in Victoria Street whence people had gone to the Kiwi Hotel and then on to Barry’s MountEden house to continue what was one of the frequent and never ending parties in the artists’ scene of the time. By this time we were all reasonably or unreasonably ‘out of it’ and David and myself and a few others were discussing our experiences with James K Baxter who had died a year or two earlier and who had influenced all of us in varying degrees, both as poets and in our lifestyles. I remember getting ready to leave and going to give David a ‘Baxter bear hug’ by way of farewell, when I felt myself being flung across the room, nearly exiting through an open window, followed by Mitchell’s menacing growl: ‘Don’t give me any of that fucking hippie bulshit!’
This event, plus reading David’s ‘Pipe Dreams’ gave me an insight into him as a man, but also affected my own thinking as a poet. Since then, like Mitchell’s own work, nothing I have written has been overtly political or faux revolutionary a la Brunton et al, although everything I write is highly charged with meaning or is symbolic of what I really mean. Unlike the academic poets (the Ezra Pounds and T.S. Eliots, the Imagists and the Modernists, to wit) of the day, Haley, Edmond, Horrocks, Curnow (Wystan), and later Manhire, who sought to deliberately deprive their work of meaning in the search for what would become known as ‘language poetry’ as a kind of side-stepping the issues, also possibly rebelling against the ‘meaning’ in Baxter’s overwhelming weltanshauung, Mitchell, and later myself, came at social and political interests obliquely, as in his ponsonby/remuera/my lai, and much later my own anti-Gulf War poem, Make Love and War.
Fast forward a decade to the early 1980s and I am back in Auckland after spending the last six years wavering between being a working class hero in Otago, working on the track-gang of New Zealand Railways laying rails and sleepers, and following my ‘bohemian’ dreams again with fellow poets and artists Peter Olds, Sandra Bell, Bryan Harold and Robin Swanney-McPherson, among others. John Lennon is dead, ‘the dream is over’, or so we thought. But, no! David Mitchell is running ‘Poetry Live’ at the Globe Tavern every Tuesday night, and the engines of poetry are charging forth anew. Once a week everything else in life is put on hold and the great driving force of the word, freed or otherwise, is set in motion by the Master of Ceremonies himself, Mitchell the Marvel. And those nights were magic!
Anybody who was anybody and/or nobody was encouraged to out-do, out-wit, out-drink, out-pun each other, and when it was time to finish it was time to begin the party, wherever it was. Iain Sharp, Grant Duncan, Bob Orr, John Pule – a whole new group of us were off into the night . . . one thing David always used to have me on about was the night I got up to read a rather long poem written in Spenserian Stanzas. I began with a serious grin, saying: ‘have we got time for an epic?’ David loved this, and often greeted me with some allusion to it thereafter. As a keen cricketer he also enjoyed the fact that I had written a novel about the game called Out of It in the 1980s.
One thing always puzzled me in relation to the Globe Readings. When I studied English One at AucklandUniversity in the early 1970s the likes of Roger Horrocks and Wystan Curnow would return from overseas, San Francisco or New York usually, enthusing over the poetry ‘scene’, how actual poets read their work in bookshops, bars and the like. Now, here in the 1980s, it was happening in Auckland and not an academic poet to be seen. Perhaps they followed Murray Edmond who, in Big Smoke stated that New Zealand in the 1960s had ‘no cities’. Bur even Hamilton, where he grew up, was a city, and those of us who grew up in Auckland in the 1950s certainly considered that we lived a city life, as I’m sure did those from Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin, for example. To further the thoughts that occasioned Edmond’s derogatory assertion, that is Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘at dawn, armed with a burning patience, enter into the splendid cities’ I add a quote from my own 1988 poem Livin’ ina Aucklan’ thus: ‘Mount Albert is just as important as Montmarte/If you live there’.
In 1984 I set up my Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop publishing house, now well documented in a well researched tome, The Earl is in . . . 25 Years of the Earl of Seacliff, edited by poet Mark Pirie. When I established it I had in mind two previous 1960s institutions, Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’, and The Beatles’ Apple record label, both of which enabled the creative artists to have control over their own output and to be as experimental as they wanted without being beholden to the whims of accountants and producers, or in my case publishers. In the mid-1980s I discussed with David the possibility of publishing some of the work I knew he had not previously published.
He was always enthusiastic, up until the final commitment, then he would give some reason for not wanting to go ahead. At the time I just let it go, but I have since found out that this was the experience of several other publishers also. Maybe they were not all poems that had ‘been read aloud in public?’ I remember one conversation with David that we had in a coffee bar in Auckland in the 1980s. We were discussing writing poems and he said that it was often the length of a page determined the length of a poem. Since then I have thought about this when writing a poem, and also how it must have affected David’s own writing.
The last few times I saw David Mitchell was in the early years of the new millennium and it was quite distressing to see the state he was in. It was tragic to see this vigorous, intelligent, inventive man become prey to a wasting disease that would in June 2011 claim his life. It was a great thing that last year, 2010, his friends Martin Edmond and Nigel Roberts put together a book of David’s selected poems, Steal Away Boy. David Mitchell leaves a legacy to New Zealand literature of, not only his own innovative style of writing and personality, but also a feeling of comradeship, generosity and aroha towards his fellow poets, something which is often lacking in today’s literary climate. I will finish with a sonnet that I wrote for David after seeing him walking dazed and confused along Wellington’s Oriental Parade in 2002: