AWF17: Pakeha Oral Poetry, with Glenn Colquhoun

I first encountered Glenn Colquhoun as a school performer, so it was a pleasure to sit in on a schools session with him. His self-deprecating humour and judicious use of the F- word made him a hit with the students, and added to the already-great reputation as a speaker that meant he needed to move from the ASB Theatre to the bigger Lower NZI Room.

glenn colquhoun
Glenn was the first poetry writer in New Zealand to sell 5,000 copies of a poetry book, with his collection Playing God (Steele Roberts, 2003). I’m sure that Hera Lindsay Bird has now well and truly joined him on that parapet. Glenn is a medical doctor, children’s writer, poet, and an astonishing speaker and thinker.

Have you ever thought about the way in which the poetry traditions of the Pakeha and Māori differ? Glenn has, and he is here to bring them together. He noted that the Pakeha tradition is “a written poetry taught in school, while the other is sung, chanted and intoned. Performed with the body, punctured in the skin.” He was inspired by this to write oral poetry, sung poetry – and so he promised to sing to us, “Not that I can sing.”

Glenn says, “If you look at a written poem, inside it is a sung poem. Like when I look into your ear, there are three bones from a reptile inside it.” He suggests picking up the study of oral poetry in schools to teachers – why not do a close reading of KaMate?

Glenn explored the traditional song-formats for Europeans, and has written a series of songs about characters from European history that intrigued him, writing them into a combination of Māori and European formats.  He wrote these oral poems to tell his European stories, his migration stories. “My experience of Māori is that they are waiting for pakeha to sing them their songs. When you sing a song you reveal something right at the heart of what you are.”

Glenn then invited students up to choose a character from his set of around 20, for him to sing about, bribing them with chocolates (these are teenagers after all).

Ernst Dieffenbach was the first to be chosen by a student. Dieffenbach was one of the first scientists to live in New Zealand. He surveyed the land for the New Zealand Company. He collected rocks, flowers, plants. He renamed the plants, he named stones; he was the first Pakeha to climb Mt Taranaki – and he kept a pet Weka which followed him around like a chicken. He was also one of the first Western doctors in New Zealand – he treated people after a battle on the Kapiti Coast, where Glenn now practices. Glenn’s interest in Dieffenbach was extended when he realised he was treating descendants of those treated by Dieffenbach after this battle.

Dieffenbach also wrote the second grammar of the Māori language – and Māori thought he was the strangest Pakeha they’d ever seen, collecting rocks and hiring them to carry them for him. Glenn has written a sea shanty for him, in the form of a haka: he calls it a ‘Shaka’. Listening to Glenn sing is a pretty unique experience – his daughter is right in thinking the tune doesn’t always hold, but he really can sing. And he does so from the heart.

The second character chosen was a skeletal character called William Strong, the Master of the Orpheus, which stranded in 1860’s on the bar outside Manukau Harbour, within about 500 metres of land. None of the sailors and soldiers could swim, so 60-70 soldiers died that day in the worst maritime disaster in New Zealand’s history. These soldiers were intended to support the NZ government in the Māori Land Wars, so one would assume there wasn’t anybody on shore prepared to help. Anyway, 17–18 years after the Orpheus drowned, as the story goes, a whole skeleton washed up on the beach: it was identifiable as William Strong, because it had a captain’s jacket on. This song was a pure sea shanty.

All of his characters have stories that are tied with New Zealand history, and they form part of a collection he is working on called Myths and Legends of the Ancient Pakeha. Colquhoun says, “We can look at our written poem and find the oral heart of it, yet our poets have rarely ever crossed over.” This is what he is doing: he wants to make the poetic forms talk to each other.

Students at the high school sessions were a lot more hesitant in coming forward for questions, but there was an excellent question from a person who writes their own spoken word poems. Glenn’s advice to them was to play – play around, like a kid does playing with toys and telling stories: “If you use your imagination, the thing is alive. Tell the stories of your own life, be playful.”

The final song was Glenn’s choice, and it was a song about Jackie Price, a Pakeha man who married a Maori woman, but turned out to be a rogue. He stole a lot of sealskins, and as punishment he and his wife were stranded deliberately on the Solomon Islands in Foveaux Strait (with the expectation they would die there). Price created a coracle and made it back to New Zealand, and we joined in with the chorus, urging Price on through the Foveaux Strait.

I’ll leave you with Glenn’s final words: “If you want to write, don’t ever let it die. Don’t let anybody tell you it is a frivolous thing to do. It is more important than accounting. Don’t give up.”

If you have the opportunity to see Glenn: do it. He is on three more times at the festival: at the Gala Night – True Stories Told Live on Thursday night; at Walk on High on Friday night; and with Dr David Gellar and Sue Wooton talking Matters Medical on Saturday.

Attended and Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Glenn’s latest book is:

Late Love
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9780947492892

 

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Book Review: The Salted Air, by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_salted_airThis is a story about death. Or rather, a story about the spaces left behind after death. Djuna has lost her partner, Harvey, to suicide. But more, she has lost her direction, her purpose and all the solid ground beneath, which holds us in times of grief.

The story is told through short, prosaic chapters. It is like visiting an art gallery with each chapter a painting of something from before, or from after. Each chapter could stand alone as an example of beautiful writing. At times, I struggled with this format as it seemed almost self-indulgent. Yet it matches the disjointed character of Djuna who is set adrift in this gallery, looking for the exit. Her own parents are separated, both legally and physically. Her mother in America, her father in the far north, seeking for his own purpose in life.

Djuna has to cope with her own grief and sense of guilt which is so much the story after a suicide. However, Conroy also shows the responsibility she has to Harvey’s parents, and to his brother, Bruce. While she is drawn to Bruce through mutual grief, she also has to question the morality of their affair. His wife and daughter are part of this complex tale of relationships and resolution.

Thom Conroy last year published The Naturalist, a novel based on the life of German naturalist, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach who travelled to New Zealand in 1839. Some of the issues involving Maori land ownership and European values are touched on again in this more contemporary novel. Here we see the effect of colonisation 150 years down the track. By using the snapshot narrative structure to tell this tale, Conroy has produced a superb series of sketches through which we weave with Djuna.

As a teacher, I could easily use each of the smaller chapters as an example of writing as craft. The language, the structure, the metaphor all come together to produce a true reading experience. The format matches the turbulent movement within as the black and white sea images front and back cover, hold a surging tide-of-a-tale.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

The Salted Air
By Thom Conroy
Published by Vintage New Zealand
ISBN 9781775538820

Book Review: The Naturalist, by Thom Conroy

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

cv_the_naturalistThom Conroy is a man of two nations – his homeland of the USA, and his current home of New Zealand – and an academic. That’s at least two things he has in common with his chosen protagonist, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach. Dieffenbach is described on Te Ara as an ‘explorer, naturalist, linguist and writer’ while Wikipedia calls him a ‘physician, geologist and naturalist’. The blurb of Conroy’s book refers to a ‘scientist, explorer, revolutionary, outcast’. So, the fictionalization would seem to take on board both the local and the international, with a little poetic licence to boot.

Regardless of historical accuracy – and a little research suggests that the book is fairly true to life – the vividness of character and landscape that Conroy captures in the novel is rather spectacular.

Conroy has an impressive background in short fiction. For some authors, the shift from short to long format prose is a difficult one – but with The Naturalist, Conroy shows that he is more than up to the task. The novel is divided into sections from different stages of his life and travels, but even as the cast of characters rotate around him, there is still an enduring sense of Dieffenbach’s simultaneous (yet very different) quests – to discover new and wonderful things at the edges of the known world and to find a way home to his family and past in Giessen.

According to Conroy’s website, The Naturalist was originally going to be called Ark of Specimens – and as much as that title is wonderfully evocative (if a little macabre), The Naturalist fits the story that he has told. It is Dieffenbach’s story, and his alone.
Weaving world history and local folklore together with a deft hand for prose, Thom Conroy has written a novel about a New Zealand that is at once familiar and alien. It’s always startling to be reminded how much the landscape of our country has changed in a relatively short time; Dieffenbach’s first voyage from Europe to the South Pacific on the Tory was in 1839.

It has been a very good couple of years for New Zealand historical fiction, and The Naturalist continues that trend. It’s wonderfully written with a beautiful cover design (when there are takahē involved, I’m sold) and leads you on a winding journey through history, nature and Aotearoa.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry, bookseller and publishing student

The Naturalist
by Thom Conroy
Published by Vintage
ISBN 9781775536482