Almost at any cost, Bill Sewell

Work in progress

Poets should always have something else to do. Of course, most have to make a living and, unless a poet is in sufficient demand as a performer, that usually means being part of the everyday workforce. And fair enough: the modern world doesn’t owe most poets a living, any more than it owes one to most politicians, television personalities or property speculators.

But work ethos reasons aside, there is another reason why poets should always have something else to do. It is difficult to live at the intensity of being a full-time poet. Many who try end up taking to drink or drugs or promiscuity or are simply very unhappy. To look at it in gastronomic terms, it’s like living on a diet of liqueur and after-dinner chocolates. You can have too much of a good thing and aficionados of Monty Python will need no reminding of what happened to the unfortunate Mr Creosote in “The Meaning of Life” when he was finally cajoled into consuming that last chocolate thin.

In particular, poets who write full-time need to have alternative writing projects — in other genres — on the go. I, for instance, have been engaged over the last few months in a poetic project with a rather grim aspect; but it has been most refreshing to be able to turn for light(er) relief to another writing and editing project, this time in prose. When I get tired of listening for and to my poetic voice, I edit someone else’s work or relax into my own less demanding and less intense prose style.

The poetic project is a long poem — or poem sequence of slim-volume length — on the 1979 Mt Erebus air disaster. The prose project is a collection of essays on sons’ relationships with their fathers, which I am writing and editing for publication later this year. For somebody who was until very recently a full-time member of the workforce, these are two quite substantial projects to be working on simultaneously (not to mention another on which I am collaborating with two other people). How did I manage to get myself into this situation?

In the case of Erebus, it arose from an abiding desire to write a long poem, something more meaty than the occasional isolated piece. It has to do with my need to sustain inspiration. I have always written in sequences — like many painters, once I find a subject, I like to look at it in several different ways — but never of more than 16 pieces. I have also always admired those contemporary poets who manage to bring off extended sequences, Curnow in his “Moro Assassinato”, for instance, or Lauris Edmond in “Wellington Letter” or, perhaps most tellingly, Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his “Sinking of the Titanic”, a poem which attempts to encompass the whole of western civilisation. Last year, after attending a session in Writers and Readers Week when I heard Enzensberger read from his own translation of that poem, it came to me very early one morning that perhaps something similar to “Titanic” (if rather more compact) could be written on the Erebus crash. It was after all a momentous event in New Zealand history, something of a turning-point; it had a story, drama and a most unusual setting. At that time I did not know of James Brown’s fine piece about flight TE901, “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain”, or Chris Orsman’s important Antarctic sequence, “South”.

The idea for the fathers-and-sons book was prompted by a small writing task I was asked to do. In 1995 I was invited to write an entry on my father, Arthur Sewell (1903-1972), for the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. I collected far more material for the task than I needed and after I had drafted the necessarily skeletal dictionary entry I was reluctant to abandon the more interesting material. My response was to write a biographical essay which would preserve more of my father’s vibrant personality and voice.

As I wrote, however, I found myself taking a more and more active part in the narrative, with the result that it became something of a dialogue between myself and my father and indeed between my present and past selves. I had slipped inadvertently into examining my relationship with my father and, in trying to understand him, I was also concluding some unfinished business with him. It was a cathartic and at the same time exhilarating experience. On completing the essay, it occurred to me that, while my relationship with my father was unique, what would not be unique was my interest in such a relationship and that other New Zealand men might also want to chronicle their own experiences of the relationship with their fathers. This proved to be the case when I invited various likely men to contribute to a book. In fact, I was surprised at the positive response I received and the main reason for declining has simply been an unwillingness to distress a still-living father (or mother).

Usually, when ideas come to me, I fail to follow up on them or do so in only a half-hearted fashion. But these two ideas were different. I was determined to pursue them, almost at any cost. I am not sure why. Perhaps they were particularly good ideas, both of which might capture the reading public’s imagination. It occurs to me now too that they may be linked in some subterranean way — perhaps through the theme of loss. But there’s another reason: I often complain to myself that I have so little to write about — these ideas were given to me in quick succession and I felt that it would have been churlish to neglect them, that I might not get another chance. So here I am in the autumn of 1997, contemplating the completion of both projects and beginning to wonder what I will do next.

But that is to anticipate. In going about Erebus it was immediately clear that it would require a strong narrative element, no matter how fragmented its presentation. This meant that I had to come to grips with what actually happened and therefore read some of the many, very technical publications on the subject. I now know — though I don’t pretend to understand fully — far more about aircraft navigation and the phenomenon of whiteout than I ever wanted to, as well as about theories on the cause of the crash. I am not particularly interested in the causes, largely because the ground has been well traversed by people better qualified than me and because I believe that the actual cause will always remain something of a mystery (though that in itself is interesting). But I am interested in the human consequences and in the glimpses of that dimension which even the sober, clinical official accident report offers.

Such material, of course, presents an immediate challenge to the writer: of making poems out of what might seem essentially unpoetic material. Can you, for example, make a poem out of the acronymic language affected by the aviation industry? Or out of the transcript of the cockpit voice recording? Or out of phrases in the Royal Commission report? Indeed you can. But, mostly, such material serves as a background to other poems: about the impact itself, about waiting for news, about chance, and about time.

There are other challenges in composing such a poem. One is to avoid being ghoulish. Flight TE901 crashed less than 20 years ago: it will still be all too present in the minds of many relatives of the victims and of those who had to clean up afterwards — the recovery team, the pathologists, the lawyers. My choice of subject-matter alone will pain some people and I am sorry for that; but I have attempted to minimise any such pain by depersonalising the events as far as possible — without, I hope, desensitising them.

Another challenge was to take risks in the actual writing. In some of the pieces I made a deliberate effort not to write the “butt-preserving”, cool, ironic, wordgames-playing poetry which has become so much part of the contemporary scene. I write in that mode at times but there are poems in Erebus which demanded — and got — a display of raw emotion, even sentimentality, where I felt that was warranted. There’s one poem about public grief called “The necessary rain”, which takes this risk and another angry piece about the death and funeral of Norman Kirk, the memory of which still moves me today.

This leads me onto the next challenge, which was to write with as much variety as I am capable of. The need for variety is, if you like, one of the prices we pay for living in a postmodern world; but in the end it also gives a more interesting result. Thus, so far, along with orthodox free verse pieces and those in regular unrhymed stanzas, there are list poems, multi-voiced poems, a sonnet, a sestina, a villanelle, a short ballad and even a set of haiku. There are also some poems which step away from the event altogether and put it in a more general context. The main challenge ahead is to arrange the whole sequence so that it manages to tell the story, begins on a quiet but compelling note, reaches some sort of climax and concludes in an emotionally satisfying manner. It will be like assembling a jigsaw puzzle which has no paradigm — apart from a vague design in my head — to guide me. And, of course, some of the pieces may not yet even exist.

The fathers-and-sons book, by contrast, is very largely administrative. I chip away at my own essay still, of course. I am also drafting an introduction, which was to have included a consideration of the father-son relationship in history and literature, though demands of space will now probably dictate something more modest. But at the moment, the main task is to read and edit the contributions as they come in and to negotiate — largely by letter — with the authors over matters I don’t understand or want changed. I am pleased to say that till now I have had very few demurrals and I put that down largely to the professionalism and goodwill of the authors.

Indeed, I have had to order no major surgery on any of the contributions; only some requests to make small excisions here, some suggestions to make a sentence clearer there. The contributions are all very different and yet all manage to evoke the father — who in most cases is now dead — and the writer’s childhood with great immediacy and poignancy. One contribution is in the form of a letter to the father; another is impressionistic; another makes free use of family papers; another is analytical; and another is very much in the vernacular. They are also, I believe, important documents, which in some cases will help to throw light on the work of the author and perhaps serve as the basis for a more extensive biographical undertaking. To take just three examples: Owen Marshall writes about the relationship which he forged in a shared love of books with his Methodist minister father; Murray Ball describes how he connected with his ex-All Black father largely — but not exclusively — in the world of rugby; and Rupert Glover reflects on his rather fragmentary experience of Denis Glover, giving us delightful glimpses of that mercurial poet, printer and personality.

Working on this kind of material and the resulting communication with the authors have been a pleasure and reading each manuscript as it arrives has been an exciting process of discovery in itself. It has also provided a necessary and welcome diversion from the intensity of reading, thinking and writing about that almost unimaginable catastrophe which scarred both the lower slopes of Mount Erebus and the national psyche.

Bill Sewell is a Wellington poet, critic and editor.

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