Novelist and poet Fiona Kidman recalls her first published book.
When first asked to contribute this essay, my response was to beg another later book. My first novel, perhaps? On reflection, I saw this for the cowardice it was. The truth is that my first book, published 37 years ago, embarrasses me now. But there it is, it exists, in the stack rooms of libraries, and here and there in the recesses of secondhand bookshops. I loved it at the time, and I can’t disown it now, even if the person who wrote it seems alien from this distance. It was a collection of poems called Honey and Bitters published in 1975 by Pegasus Press, of its time, anguished and confessional. But here and there are some flashes of energy and clarity, a passion that I wish I had now, even if I know more about the craft of writing poetry than I did then.
I arrived in Wellington in 1970, with a few short stories in literary periodicals to my name, some radio plays and a fair bit of journalism behind me. I planned to write novels. I soon fell in with a crowd of poets. There was Lauris Edmond, who became one of my closest friends up until the time of her death, Vincent O’Sullivan, Alistair Campbell, a passing brush or two with Jim Baxter, Louis Johnson, and the very young Bill Manhire and Sam Hunt. I thought I could be a poet too, however little I knew about the subject. I’d never heard of a villanelle or a sestet. But I began “giving it a go” and soon, to my happy surprise, Ian Cross took a couple of poems and published them in the New Zealand Listener.
This convinced me that I was a poet, and I began to produce work at a great rate. There were a lot of readings going on then, and I joined in. I should recap here a little: it was the time when the women’s movement was getting seriously under way in New Zealand, and as well as Lauris and all the blokes I’d met, other women were beginning to appear at the readings too. There was Rachel McAlpine and Meg Campbell and Elizabeth Smither, to name a few. We were increasingly in demand to read, and women flocked to hear us. Most of us were in fractured stages of our lives. I know I was. We bared a lot of personal baggage in our work. I suppose that’s why Honey and Bitters unsettles me now, because I’ve got older and calmer and more private.
In 1975, International Women’s Year came along, the famous year when nine women poets published collections, more than had been collectively published by New Zealand women in the previous 10 years. I was among them.
My approach to Albion Wright at Pegasus the previous year had come about during a bizarre literary incident, which I’ve recorded elsewhere, but bears retelling in this context. I was one of the judges of the Wattie Book Awards in 1974, and the lunchtime ceremony to announce the winners took place in Christchurch. All three came from Wellington: Witi Ihimaera, Tony Simpson and a geologist called Graeme Stevens. On arrival at Wellington airport, we learned that Christchurch was closed by fog. I was instructed by the organisers that I must get the winners to Christchurch by whatever means possible. We should hire a light plane which would take us to Blenheim, rent a car and “drive like hell” until we got to Christchurch. I had my own reasons for wanting to get to the ceremony. Tucked in my bag was the manuscript of Honey and Bitters, which I wanted to present to Albion in person. I had heard he was elusive but expected him to be present that day.
As it happened, the fog down south cleared within half an hour, but by then my companions and I had flown to Blenheim. The organisers made it to the lunch but our group arrived around five o’clock that evening. Albion was one of the remnants of the lunch crowd still propping up the bar. We had a few minutes before heading back to Wellington, but it was long enough for me to slide the poems to my would-be publisher. He groaned, dropped his head in his hands, and said in lugubrious voice: “Oh, not another lady poet.” I bought him a gin and fled.
The next morning he phoned to tell me he loved the poems and would be publishing them. A week or two later, he also agreed to publish a collection of Lauris’s poems, In Middle Air.
I remember the night that advance copies of my book arrived in Wellington. I had to go to a freight depot in town to collect them. On the way home, I stopped the car under a street light and tore the parcel open. I could just discern the garish citric-yellow and navy blue covers in the dim light. I opened one of the books and smelt it, marvelling at its crisp new paper scent. After that followed a moment of pure blind panic as I wondered whether I could retract and undo what I had written.
Lauris and I had a joint launch at the old University Club. Two hundred people came, including a number of politicians who gate-crashed. Denis Glover launched Lauris’s book and Sam Hunt mine. Albion came up and drank copiously, all of which Lauris and I paid for, as Albion didn’t run to paying for launch parties. It seemed riotous and zany, and we thought ourselves at the centre of the universe and very fine poets. Lauris did become exactly that. After a while I got on with the business of becoming a writer of fiction.