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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DWRF 2017: Word Balm, with Glenn Colquhoun, David Galler and Sue Wootton

Available in bookshops nationwide.
pp_glenn_colquhounDWRFIt was a mild autumnal night as a nearly sold-out crowd of 100 or so ventured out to listen to three expert witnesses talk about ‘what literature can do for Medicine’. Glenn Colquhoun (right), David Galler and Sue Wootton all have experience in the worlds of medicine and words, and they were a thoughtful expert panel in consideration of this topic.

The three authors read from their work, with Colquhoun and Wootton sharing exquisite poetry that bridges what seems to be the divide between medicine and the arts, perhaps specifically the art of being human.  The final line of Colquhoun’s shared poem, written for a teenage client of his medical clinic, expressed with tenderness the remodeling or deconstruction that is perhaps needed when we think about illness and ill-health: ‘learn to love the broken bits’.

pp_sue_woottonSue Wootton’s poem ‘Wild’ was a reminder of what is at the heart of our human being: Measure my wild. /Down to my last leaf,/my furled, my desiccated. This deciduousness,/this bloom …’ The sharing of this poem followed a discussion of the clinical nature (sometimes thankfully, sometimes awfully) of medicine and the medical tests and interventions that come from living in a bio-technological era.

pp_david-galler_3_origA lot of the discussion was centred around how to gain/regain human connection in the medical world.  At one stage this dialogue considered the role of touch in the professions, and how touch can be more than just the corporeal laying on of hands, although that, too, was discussed as sometimes fitting. Galler (left) shared his experience of having a serious accident, and the recognition from the staff upon being admitted to hospital. They wanted to talk; he needed the morphine.  To Galler, the sharing of this anecdote expressed the subtle and artistic evaluations medical practitioners need to make in the moments, and how crucial and important these are to a patient’s sense of humanity. The ‘touch’ here could be in assessing with compassion what is most needed in the moment.

Glenn Colquhoun’s metaphor further exploring this, in which he compared his role as doctor with that of a surfer catching waves, was perfect; if you wait too long or take off too soon, you miss the wave.  This, he said, is like the art of listening that occurs in the relationship with a patient; you need to feel out when it is time to talk and time to listen; when it’s time to move forward and to move back.  Here, the ‘touch’ is in the words, or their absence.

I left the discussion wishing, as Colquhoun also mentioned, that the medical world was not so separate from the human, everyday one we exist in. If, as he says, the ‘white walls and white sheets’ could be or become more integrated with our lived experience, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a scary and sometimes isolating place to inhabit, as we all inevitably do, either as patient or family member.

Event attended and reviewed by Lara Liesbeth on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Word Balm – An event at Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017
Featuring Glenn Colquhoun, Sue Wootton and David Gellar 

Programme for the DWRF, running from 9 – 14 May

Book Review: Transit of Venus / Venustransit, by Hinemoana Baker et al

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_transit_of_venusFour years ago three New Zealand and three German poets went on a journey to Tolaga Bay to witness the transit of Venus, an event that occurs in pairs every 120-odd years. Famously, Captain Cook landed on that very spot during a transit of Venus some 250 years ago, for what is regarded as the first friendly encounter between Europeans and Maori.

Now the poems written on and around this trip in 2012 have been curated in a marvellous collection in German and English, some with a Māori component. A number of poems are juxtaposed with their respective translation, some remain within their language; an added air of mystery for monolingual readers. Many of the poems delve into the mysterious, pick up on the goddess theme, such as Uwe Kolbe’s total mythology mash-up Venus, Ein europäischer Transit … , or bring the surroundings into the poetry; and then there is the odd (very odd) shanty.

Just as the Transit of Venus can only be observed through a telescope, many of the translations involved an intermediary to aid with clarity between the languages. Translations were collaborated on via skype, which means the poems went up into space before landing back on earth in their altered form. It is this complex web of interaction and intermediacy, which makes this project so interesting.

The collection is rounded off with a profile of each poet and an interview with the three German poets, at least one of whom had never been to New Zealand before. Another first encounter for them.

This collection is exciting on so many levels. The reader does not need to know all the languages involved to be able to enjoy the interplay, but it sure adds another level. What we have here is a voyage of discovery, an experience of proximity and distance in time, space and language. A connection forged between two continents. May it persist and prosper.

Reviewed by Melanie Wittwer, English/German translator

Transit of Venus | Venustransit
by Hinemoana Baker, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Glenn Colquhoun, Uwe Kolbe, Brigitte Oleschinski, Chris Price
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739797