Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kia Ora Koutou Aotearoa (Thank you New Zealand) -16/03/2011


Ok, I know this is stupidly long. The problem composing letters like this is you will inevitably forget somebody, maybe a few bodies. I’ve tried not to, but assuming I screw up and do forget (you), let me start by backing up a little and say one or two general things about New Zealand and the people there:

The friendliness, hospitality and generosity of New Zealanders is such that for the 59 days of this trip, I only spent 4 nights in paid-for accommodation, many times staying with people who had never even met me before.

One time, I got lost in Wellington and when I asked a man for directions, instead of simply explaining my error, he offered to drive me where I needed to get to. That’s the type of generosity that just leaves you feeling both humbled and kind of ashamed too, in a strange way.

So: Thank you Miriam Barr and Renee Liang for trying to introduce me to other poets around Auckland and the rest of New Zealand. It was you two who really got the ball rolling for me, and I could really see the effort you put into putting me in touch with the right folks, which made everything else possible.

Annora Gallop, thank you for inviting me along to the Opononi reading, and your gracious hospitality such a welcoming and friendly bunch in such an idyllic setting, and incidentally, in going North there you gave me the excuse I needed to go all the way to the top, which I may not have done otherwise.

Christian Jensen, thanks for the Auckland poetry live gig and the pre-show slot at the Fringe Festival, for inviting me into your home and giving me my first chance to actually meet all these facebook-friended New Zealand poets I’d been chatting to for months.

Thanks also to Michael Botur for your great photos from that gig, and your kind words, it was a pleasure to share the same stage as your anthropological self.

Thanks to Mike Rudd for likewise inviting me into your home, and rescuing me from my Metropolitan squalor, for spending time listening to my belly ache and swapping all those war stories with me, but most importantly for bringing me back down to Earth when I lost sight of the common ground we share.

Thanks to Ciaran Fox for putting me up on stage at Catalyst in Christchurch. As I’m writing this it’s early March and still difficult to mention this poetry reading without talking around the subsequent earthquake. Tragedy brings on the tendency in us to romanticise and overlook petty complaints or problems, so it might sound suspiciously insincere to say (now) this was my overall favourite gig, from the enthusiasm in how Catalyst promoted it online, to the turnout on the night, to the quality and variety of the open stage, to the immense and palpable –welcome- I got from Doc, Ciaran, Tril Lion and everyone there.

The vibe of that place just felt lovely, it truly was a privilege to be there. Maybe it’s wrong to say this but –it was definitely on my mind when making the decision to donate to help the people of this city.

A McHuge size thank you to Jane Dixon of the Mussel Inn, for taking the chance of putting a sweaty, dishevelled and unknown interloper up on your nationally-renown stage for a night.

As a result of this gig, something deep has permanently shifted inside me that night as far as confidence and ambition for my work, and the feeling that I can and should take it beyond conventional poetry circles.

Though not to slight those poetry circles, and certainly not ones such as Poetic justice in Wanaka, where Liz Breslin and Laura Williamson put me on for their Rage Against The Valentine, anti-valentine reading.

Of all the readings, this was one where I was given an assignment for, and therefore got very excited about doing. The night was a laugh from start to finish, and probably goes down as my favourite open mike section, to the point I decided to poach a few people’s poems for my next covers gig.

Laurice Glibert, thank you for featuring me at 2011 first NZ Poetry Society meeting, I freely admit I was really floored by the name and expected some arch-conservative literary horror show. Boy was I wrong! Laurice’ own poem about ogling a young waiter steamed the room in a way I won’t soon forget, and the Q&A session afterwards with the other poets was a really nice touch, such a fun night.

Greg Brimblecombe of the Thames Poets Circle was an absolute champ in looking after me, and I had the easiest time in organising a gig with you, yes it was a quiet, but because of that intimate, evening, where barriers between audience and performer truly vanished, which was really cool. Thanks for letting me stay at your place too Greg, and peruse your DVD and amazing book collections. Silly of me not to make more time so I could explore the Coromandel area, but oh well, that’s what next time is for.

Shane Hollands and the other Freaky Meat lads. What a great night we had there in Titarangi, I think our styles married together really well and I have to say of the music-poetry crossover/collaborations I’ve seen (including mine) Freaky Meats has to have been the best, and I’m so glad we’ve got the footage now to prove it. Shane, I feel you and I are really kindred spirits in a lot of ways and thanks so much for not just squeezing me in, but really making me feel welcome and part of the evening.

Now of this stupidly long list there are two individuals I wanted to give special praise to (apropos, one’s a North Islander, the other South) Gus Simonovic and Mary McGill respectively.

These were people who went out of their way (like, Melbourne to NZ via Alaska out of their way) to help make things happen, who not only delivered on what I asked, but did extra, who showed interest in the work and an ability to get it out there in front of enthusiastic crowds, and were just so damn nice about it too, never making me feel like I was imposing. Gus and Mary, simply speaking, you guys rock, and I can’t say enough about how I respect what you each are doing with your art, and admire your energy.

Gus said to me several times that if there were a few people like me in NZ, the whole poetry scene would be revolutionised. Gus, you got it all backwards mate, we need more people like you over there, certainly not me.

At times on stage New Zealand brought out the best in me, and off stage it brought out the worst in me. I had a lot of hopes and expectations of myself on this trip, got high on my own histrionics at times and inadvertently caused offence where none was intended For better and worse, my art comes from places of deep but shifting unrest, dissatisfaction and hunger within myself. For as long as I’ve written and performed, I’ve retained an irreverent attitude to poets, poetry and poetry gigs, and a sensibility for not taking oneself too seriously –and taking less seriously than that, anyone else who does. This is neither apology nor excuse, as I’ve already provided those.

Beyond the koha for Christchurch or however my rants on stage effected people, it’s my wish to leave behind something more. I’m not the first or hopefully the last Australian poet to visit New Zealand (on business), the way was paved for me by many others. However, there certainly was no prescribed way of doing this, no tour circuit as such, and I had to put in a lot of hard work, networking to find poetry, performance gigs and open stages spaces across the country, and now that I have that information I’d really to use it to help others.

So if anyone, either side of the Tasman, would like information or advice about where and how to get around the different parts of New Zealand I’d be happy to share it.

For the few cold shoulders I caught, on the chin, there were plenty others who are open and appreciative of visitors, and in audiences across both islands of the country, overwhelmingly I felt welcome and accepted. Several times I was asked if I’d ever consider moving to New Zealand. My answers each time got less and less clear and required more thought. There was one distinct occasion where I was thrown off completely –temporarily forgetting that I live somewhere else, not this country with a population smaller than that of Melbourne.

I’ve gotten better at travelling light, it’s necessary with all that movement you do touring, packing and unpacking and sooner or later you’ll end up leaving something behind. I wanted to take home the burnt coal air smell of the west coast town I was born in, the taste of L&P, Bluebird Chips, or Speights (though I have found a bottle-o that has Macs beer here!)

What I left behind deliberately was 40 odd copies of my CD, hundreds of lot of smiling faces, and dozens of invitations to come visit me in Melbourne, what I’ve brought back with me is lots of good will from the places I’ve visited and shared my creativity with others.

My experience of New Zealand was broad, rich, exciting, challenging and ultimately fulfilling. There are many more poems I have to finish/edit about my experiences there and still other yet that only exist as seeds in my mind. I look forward to growing them out and sharing them with you, as New Zealand has shared itself with me, and helped me grow.

Thank you poets, artists and friends in New Zealand. See you again some day!


-Randall $tephens

March 16th 2011


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