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 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:
Published by Bridget Williams Books