A world of imagination and discovery

More exciting than pyrotechnics or performance is the quietness of making or reading poetry, according to David Howard. Charmian Smith talks to the University of Otago 2013 Burns Fellow.

University of Otago 2013 Burns Fellow David Howard: 'During my teens reading poetry took over...
University of Otago 2013 Burns Fellow David Howard: 'During my teens reading poetry took over from reading anything else and I found I could get into quite a receptive space if I was in front of a powerful poem. It helped me get an enhanced sense of my own possibility.' Photo by Craig Baxter.
Making poetry is the most exciting thing David Howard has found to do with his time.

If we back our hunches through our teens and 20s, we find what excites us and keeps us alive and can then spend the rest of our lives trying to keep that treasured area and grow it, the 2013 Burns Fellow at the University of Otago says.

Howard (54) says he started reading poetry seriously when he was 12, working his way from A to Z through the poetry section of the Christchurch Public Library.

He had been introduced to the poems of Robert Burns by his maternal grandfather, who was a Scot.

''I remember I'd been thrilled by the way the language was patterned. During my teens reading poetry took over from reading anything else and I found I could get into quite a receptive space if I was in front of a powerful poem. It helped me get an enhanced sense of my own possibility,'' he said.

''Instead of being all over the place and angry and trying to do 1000 things at once, and trying to impress my friends and impress girls and all that nonsense - necessary nonsense - I could just sit in front of a poem and all the pretence and striving dropped away and I just got into an almost pure sense of wonder - and how someone could make something like this. So I started to try and make something like this.''

Studying Keats in high school gave him a sense of how to use alliteration and assonance, and reading the Liverpool poets with their pop references and talk about smoking and girls gave him a sense of poetry being part of an ongoing contemporary way of being rather than something in a museum, he said.

When he left school he decided to become a poet, understanding he wouldn't make money out of it and would have to do other work to survive. At first he did labouring and retail work which didn't require a lot of training and didn't consume his imagination or take away from the poetry. While in his early 20s his poems were published in Landfall and the Listener. Since then he has had 10 volumes of poetry published by small publishers, the latest being You're So Pretty When You're Unfaithful To Me (2012) and his work has been included in several anthologies.

However, he became ''heartily sick of doing menial jobs'' by his late 20s so he trained to become a pyrotechnist, working with fireworks and special effects. It supported him and his son: he was a solo dad, he said.

''It got really interesting and was quite consuming and almost negative for poetry in one sense because it took time away from it, but it gave me financial security which I hadn't had before.''

In Auckland in the 1990s there was a lot of pyrotechnic work and plenty of money around. It was a productive time in terms of the New Zealand spin machine. He worked with municipal authorities, sports teams, musicians, and advertising agencies producing special effects like a wall of flame around a photocopier. It was a culture of excess that fireworks rode with nicely but poetry didn't, he said.

''I was consistently working in an imaginative way with people who didn't really care about literature. That may sound negative, but it's really good. I think one of the problems may be of working surrounded by people who share the same taste as you is you come into this false view that everybody values what you value,'' he said.

''Working with people who didn't read poetry, didn't read novels, actually didn't read, was really good for me because it meant when I did make space for a poem, when a poem muscled in on my busy life in my 30s, I didn't bring to the making of the poem a lot of literary assumptions. It just let me listen more closely to what was happening on the page than I might otherwise have been able to if I'd been surrounded by an academic environment.''

About 10 years ago he moved back to the South Island, buying a house at Purakaunui where he has lived since. It was about rediscovering that quiet space. In a busy city life, trying to make money and keep your head above water you lose the opportunity and the will to make a quiet, almost religious space, he said.

''It's a contemplative space, a space where you are trying to honour yourself and the world. I don't believe anybody can go through life without doing that on a regular basis and remain well.''

In the country he took his cues from the change of light, the hawk flying past at 7.50 in the mornings and 3 o'clock in the afternoon.

''I realised again, as I realised as a child, that the wider world is quite indifferent to human beings and really doesn't care because caring isn't what creation is about. It gave me a sense of time that is different. When you live in a city you are totally scheduled up and you begin to believe almost without thinking that everything is set by the will of men and women. When you live in the country you realise this is not the case at all. For me making poems has become, as I've got older, an even more spiritual activity than it was for the teenager who wanted wonder.''

Besides writing his own poems, he co-founded the literary journal Takahe to publish young writers, especially South Island writers who tended to be overlooked by other literary publications, he said.

Because writing is a solitary activity, Howard enjoys collaborating with other artists.

''To keep myself on my toes in terms of literature, it's been useful to work with other disciplines that require me to think outside the square about how to make poems. Working with composers has been an ongoing interest because when you bring orchestration or any other type of sound - it may be electronic sound - to language and you have voices of trained singers, then as an author your sense of what's going to work changes. I also have to listen really closely when I work with someone else. I can't just ride on my own prejudices and preferred methods of working. If you are working in a group you have to be more generous; you have to listen more closely than if you are just working on your own,'' he said.

''The leaps of imagination that happen in a poem delight me and, I hope, delight the reader, but it's all solitary. The reader's in his or her own room and I'm in my little office and there isn't much of a public dimension to that. It's a very private activity.''

Howard sometimes reads his poetry to audiences but says an actor would do it better as he's not a skilled performer. Unlike some poets who specialise in performance and write specifically to entertain a live audience, he sees poetry as an act of imagination and discovery.

''What attracted me to poetry was its capacity to cause wonder. It only causes wonder if two things are present. One, there has to be an inquiring mind on the part of both the reader and the writer, and there has to be attention to language on the part of both the reader and the writer. Neither of those things, it seems to me, are served by wilful acts of attention-seeking.''

He is cynical about publishers' marketing hype. It doesn't fit well with literature, which takes its strength from quietness and the one-on-one relationship between writer and reader, he said.

''That means that when the language that's associated with large sports events and marketing promotions is applied to literature there is violence done to the medium. I'm so sick of artificial stars: someone writes a novel and it's the best thing since James Joyce wrote Ulysses, or someone wins a minor award and suddenly they are touring the country on the back of it.''

During his fellowship year, Howard has been working on two long poems that he approaches rather like writing a novel, planning the setting and main characters and their relationships, he said.

''The reason I do this is so I don't just drift all over the place and have this kind of arbitrary mess which you can very easily get into in a long piece. It gives clarity and direction, but having clarity and direction still allows for surprise in a long poem. You find a line turns up from your character and you had no idea that your character thought that or felt that. I again emphasise the novel link but the difference is the precision of the language, the capacity to put ideas together than don't normally come together in everyday life.''

However, shorter lyric poems tend just to turn up if you listen, he says.

''People say it's all perspiration and hard work, but I believe very strongly there's inspiration but that's just a term for listening.

''If you sit in your armchair, lie in your hammock, wait at your office desk for long enough, you will hear something. It sounds mystical, but that's your poem. And then it really is as if you are being dictated to when it's going well. It's almost as if someone else is writing the script for you and you just have to make sure you understood that word properly and you didn't mishear it.''


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