Looking back, going forward

Vincent O'Sullivan's “Being Here: selected poems”, (Victoria University Press, $40)
Vincent O'Sullivan's “Being Here: selected poems”, (Victoria University Press, $40)
New Zealand Poet Laureate Vincent O'Sullivan has a new collection of verse, some of which is old, vintage even, writes Shane Gilchrist.

As a poet, fiction writer, editor and dramatist (among other talents), Vincent O'Sullivan is more than familiar with the concept of paradox.

A line from his 1988 play, Jones & Jones, encapsulates the fuzzy line between writing and reality. D.H. Lawrence asks Katherine Mansfield whether she knows when she is telling the truth.

Her reply: ''But I'm an artist Lawrence, like yourself. Our vocation is to tell the truth as only the liar can.''

Speaking from Auckland at the weekend before flying to Australia to catch up with family over Easter, O'Sullivan notes such a statement makes an important distinction.

''The personality on the page and the personality of the person writing are not identical.

''It depends on the writer: some are more autobiographical than others but, personally, I don't care for what 30 years ago was called confessional verse, where you just let it all out.

''By itself, sensitivity is only half the story. There is also the coldness of the artist. I use the word coldness, but I mean distance from yourself, a concern with form as well as what you are actually saying.

''It is a curious combination of warmth and immediacy but also a distance and coolness in order to find a form for it. I think you need to filter whatever it is you're feeling. And you do that through the form you employ.

''In other words, a poem is never a diary entry saying `this is what I think exactly'. It is more, `this is what I'm thinking but I've tarted it up a bit'.''

A recipient of numerous awards, residencies and fellowships, including being named New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2013, O'Sullivan has followed his 2014 short story collection, The Families with a new book of verse.

Being Here: selected poems features some of his most significant poetry collections, including Bearings (1973), Butcher & Co. (1977), Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka (1979), The Butcher Papers (1982) and The Pilate Tapes (1986).

Yet O'Sullivan is loathe to describe Being Here as a career retrospective or anthology.

Instead, he likens the collection to a family photo album.

''They might not be great shots, but they are all you've got.''

At the suggestion this is a rather modest summing-up of a distinguished body of work, the 77-year-old offers a chuckle.

''Well, that's right. But I do think people think of selected poems as a bit of a collection of shots over the years.

''I didn't find it an enjoyable job putting it together, because it's a bit hard to have a deep sympathy or interest in something you might have done 30 years ago; it's almost as if it has been done by someone else,'' O'Sullivan explains.

Poet Vincent O'Sullivan. Photo supplied.
Poet Vincent O'Sullivan. Photo supplied.

''You almost take yourself with a grain of salt when choosing a collection like that: do you select them for personal reasons rather than artistic ones? All those questions come into it.

''But finally you just hope for the best and say, `this is the stuff I thought I might store away and see if you like it'.''

The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998), edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie, claims one of O'Sullivan's ''most original contributions to New Zealand verse'' is his creation of the character Butcher, whose shop-talk serves both as a vessel for wider poetic concerns while ''exploiting a dramatist's ear for chit-chat''.

Yet to pluck only some from a related sequence has its risks, O'Sullivan admits.

''One sort of depends on another, so if you pluck half a dozen out from what was originally a group of 20, they won't stand up as strongly as they did because they weren't written as individual poems.

''It is much easier to pick from a book of 40 or 50 quite separate poems.''

The breadth of Being Here notwithstanding, the collection is book-ended by two poems that offer quiet, everyday introspection.

Opening with Morning (1973), which ruminates on animals grazing in the autumnal cool, the collections winds up with The sentiment of goodly things, in which O'Sullivan's imagery of returning to an old typewriter presents a gentle statement of intent.

''I suppose I wanted to end on that poem because I think some of my poems get a bit dark or gloomy at times. One of my favourite lines is in a Bertolt Brecht poem: `the man who is smiling ... has not heard the bad news'.

''I just loved that sentiment. And I do think there's a bit of that in my work, a tendency to put stress on the darker side of things.

''So [in The sentiment of goodly things] I wanted to say that if you persist with poetry, then find some faith in, or direct attention to, the good things in life.''

In O'Sullivan's case, those good things extend to music. No, he doesn't play an instrument. But he has enjoyed putting words to the music of accomplished New Zealand composer Ross Harris.

''I did Requiem for the Fallen [performed last year at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts and Arts Festival Dunedin], and we have an opera at the next New Zealand festival. It's called Brass Poppies, and is about the Wellington regiment at Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli.

''I'm not a musical person. But the experience of working with Ross has offered me quite different opportunities and challenges. And working with another person is quite exhilarating, because writing is quite a solitary vice, you know.''

Having lived in Wellington for two decades, the Auckland-raised O'Sullivan headed to Dunedin three years ago.

The tipping point came in 2007 when he was awarded an arts residency at Henderson House, Alexandra. Although he and his wife enjoyed their time in Central Otago, Dunedin seemed a more logical destination.

''I thought it was important to get away from a place of comfort. It doesn't hurt to rattle the bars occasionally,'' he says.

''It has turned out very well. I regard Dunedin as both a physical and emotional home now. I think Dunedin pops up more in my work now.''

Indeed. Towards the end of Being Here is a poem, All right then, are we? in which O'Sullivan muses on a walk that takes him to the sea.

''It's about enjoying the solitude of it, that isolation that isn't a frightening thing, but a very fulfilling thing ...

an invigorating thing,'' he says.

''I haven't got the right to say I feel at home there - I've only been down there three and a-half years.

''But if you can say, 'this is the place I prefer to be and can't imagine leaving it', then I think you are entitled to call it home.''


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