Under Government and Restraint: Tim Jones Interviews David Howard

By and | 19 March 2010

As I observed in Capital of the Minimal (nzepc, 2004), Jesson is too narrow. There is something about the structure and culture of every country that fosters the mediocre conformist. That ‘something' is the systemic embodiment of the individual's desire for acceptance. The mainstream (admittedly the term belongs to a cartoon rather than a chart) requires that the universal default to the banal. Well, that's what the Romantic relic in me whispers – along with the suspect suggestion that the poetic text is feminine in its ability to span and generate.

Doubt is a stock that carries its share down the years. Informally introduced to Maoritanga by the Ngai Tahu artist Jenny Rendall, I still feel the diffidence of many Pakeha writers in ‘appropriating' the local – the more so for living near the site of Mapoutahi Pa, which was destroyed by a raiding party in the late eighteenth century. Despite my dislike of his Catholic histrionics – one part St John of the Cross, one part Rimbaud – I admire Baxter's prescient incorporation of Maori words and their underlying concepts; it constitutes an enlargement of the world that is more pertinent to me than that offered by the likes of John Ashbery, Billy Collins and Robert Creeley. I'm still stunned by cloddish embarrassment and leery admiration when Bernadette Hall sings waiata. Yet nearly fifty years have passed since Barry Mitcalfe published Poetry of the Maori (Paul's Book Arcade, 1961). What is going on?

We southerners are regarded as parochial and pastoral. If it is parochial to own your place rather than to import pre-fabricated frames stamped MADE IN THE USA then we are parochial. So is Aucklander Kendrick Smithyman, who recognised the inadequacy of nationalist and regionalist mapping; who excavated the contemporary with a sharp pen in the service of a sharper ear for the historicising nuance; who translated the Italian Hermetics (as did Iain Lonie) while composing Tomorata (Holloway Press, 1996). Which is to acknowledge that the description is psychological rather than geographical.

While, indeed because, this is a young country we must resist every impulse to trumpet the infantile. The infant's first survival technique is to copy, which is ingratiating. The reward of sentiment and bathos is one indicator of our exhausting immaturity as a literature. Reading Jenny Bornholdt's The Rocky Shore, which is anecdote leached of the life it purports to honour, I recall Christopher Lasch's warning: 'The record of the inner life becomes an unintentional parody of inner life. A literary genre that appears to affirm inwardness actually tells us that inner life is precisely what can no longer be taken seriously.' E.M. Cioran is sharper and blunter: 'art, on its way to exhaustion, has become both impossible and easy.' Responding (on Joanna Preston's blog) to Iain Sharp's apologia for Bornholdt in Landfall 218, Robert McLean stuck a pin through the butterfly:

The main problem I have with poems such as those in The Rocky Shore is that the intelligent reader's only response is to sympathise with the writer, i.e. it's a one way proclamation. There are no grounds for empathy, which is a very difficult task for any writer to achieve, but one of the few worth pursuing. Nowhere in The Rocky Shore is responsibility taken for the decisions that led Jenny Bornholdt to the point at which quotidian constants such as death and sickness could have induced frisson to the degree it did in her. All the novelistic particulars induce a spell of immediacy in the reader, but they also serve to harshly differentiate Bornholdt's world from anyone who doesn't partake of the privileges she does.

In the myth-making and possibly mythical 'mainstream' there's an ocean of talk but no one is walking on water. I continue to puddle about – a naturally reclusive character who, politically, is committed to the notion of community. There are many ways to approach that notion. For the poet Thomas James, whose stony tenderness I admire, it was through the theatre of extremity. You might write yourself into a corner, yet a corner is also a social place (admittedly those who refuse to question render the language they read dead, however vital the writing). Whenever I feel isolated then I take pleasure and hope from those prepared to ask harder questions than 'How much attention?' and 'How much?' Robert McLean and Sally Ann McIntyre, both of whom have yet to publish extensively, can think and write beyond the obvious.

TJ: It’s my impression that some poets are writing primarily for an audience – writing to be heard, or read – whereas others are writing primarily for themselves. Do you think there is any truth in this distinction, and if so, which “camp” would you put yourself in?

DH: Logically it's possible to do both simultaneously. It depends on your temperament. You need to be extroverted to work the populist (rather than the public) vein with integrity. An audience may be the intended but it is not the only beneficiary of fine writing. Here some poets proceed, filled with a rather bumptious enthusiasm, on the basis that they are required to entertain primarily rather than secondarily – and they do violence to their work by trying to be stand-up comedians. They may be praised for a gritty accessibility (Hone Tuwhare, Glen Colquhoun, Kate Camp) but, after picking up their collections, my fingers are left sticky because the appeal is often sentimental (Camp is knowing enough to outgrow this).

I don't feel either capable or obligated to enter the bun fight for popularity so I suppose I write for my self. Nonetheless I'm sympathetic to David Byrne when he speaks about the album Fear of Music by Talking Heads: 'It wouldn't please us to make music that's impossible to listen to, but we don't want to compromise for the sake of popularity.' Unfortunately he begs the question: What constitutes impossible?

I write grid poems that can be read across and/or down, yet they respect grammatical convention. I also write foot-to-the-floor narrative pieces that have paratactic speed shakes. Then there are lyrics that flicker around the luminous moment. Whatever, if I attend then language will provide entry points for that silence which is the reservoir of the reader's memory – although I know it is impossible to reach let alone satisfy an undifferentiated mass. 'I write for the people' is meaningless, whereas 'I write for the person' means a good deal. Like many others I attempt to make sense of the senseless, to move with purpose through the arbitrary, to learn from instances of hate how to rage my way into the impassioned calm that is love. You don't have to be a poet to do this. A gardener might have more success. But poetry is my method and my madness. Because language is social, I necessarily have a social vision – it's not coherent but it is motivating.

TJ: More generally, why do you write poetry?

DH: Poetry is a way of knowing. My poems work to limit the claims of pathos as they announce them. They also interrogate the nature of time. Metaphor, which is a method of perception as much as it is a figure of speech, performs an analogous task by leaping through space to link the disparate. My son, the philosopher Luc Howard, frames the central question for and of my poetry as follows:

Beyond our unthinking use of the tenses we typically demonstrate and explicate our experience of time in metaphorical terms. Often time is regarded as a resource (time is spent, saved or wasted), or purely subjectively (time flies, drags or stands still), however sometimes our metaphorical language latches onto something more substantive, that is, sometimes when we speak about time our speech can be interpreted as having implicit metaphysical content. This is the case when we suggest that times are past, present or future, that time flows, or that there is an arrow of time. Interestingly, despite our seemingly universal experience of time in these terms (as an anisotropic, dynamic, directed entity), our best scientific and philosophical theories paint a picture of time that is, ontologically, diametrically opposed. On these theories time is static, probably isotropic, and may not have a preferred direction. This fact then needs explaining: if science and philosophy are right, if time really is static, isotropic and undirected, why do we have the experiences of time that we seem to? Why is our phenomenology of time so removed from the way time really is (if it is)?

One of the disappointments afforded by reading most local poets is their failure to go beyond cause-effect narration: saw that/felt this is not the process of an informed poesis. Poetry is always a conversation, however it is not necessarily demotic. We lack the confidence of Andrea Zanzotto, who can use the hieratic to collapse rather than describe boundaries. We prefer to recount rather than enact – although the latter is not, given Luc's analysis, without its difficulties. I try to use elegy to shift the terms of reference for loss, which is experiential, while working issues of equivocation, the persistence of memory (and therefore continuity of identity), and language's capacity to evoke the unspoken.

TJ: You have previously worked as a pyrotechnics technician and SFX supervisor for acts including Janet Jackson and Metallica. Has it left traces on your poetry?

DH: Pyrotechnics promised a wider collaboration with the musical, sporting and entrepreneurial worlds than was possible in literary New Zealand. While visceral, fireworks are impersonal and I wanted clear of the word writer. Perhaps my poems had come, like the trees of Birnam Wood, to rout the person who owned them. I withdrew from the submission-publication-review cycle. I fell silent, only it didn't feel like falling.

What then? Kenosis. Fireworks were and are part of that challenge to empty. They appear to dominate the sky but it's a percussive illusion; they get their power through surrendering to the night. By vanishing they stay with us. Seeing is not believing; belief comes after the seeing, when you're gazing at black. And with poetry you have to listen for what's not there. An attentive listener knows the word partners something larger than a dictionary definition. On tour, rigging in gantries, then packing out at four in the morning under security lights rather than the moon – it all helped me to weigh silence.

Designing fireworks displays, articulating space, gave me the strength to attempt longer poems: I was now confident of my ability to structure the unseen, the becoming. How? If site provides context then fireworks don't so much map as transcend it because they take the viewer into an apprehension of the eternal through the momentary. The report of a launching charge is more than a deafening report on experience. Exposed by the exploding shell, perhaps site is akin to the light-sensitive paper that photographs are printed on – but a paper that has not been treated with fixative. When the spreading charge transforms common chemicals into uncommon effects, then the audience participates more than the pyrotechnician. No exposure matches that of the spirit – it cannot be captured. After all, is this so different from what happens with language? Words turn around the world, searching the pockets of discarded jackets for secrets. See, here is a piece of crumpled paper. It is the charred casing of a star shell.

TJ: If it were possible, would you want to be a full-time poet?

DH: A poet is like an alcoholic: dry or wet, he remains one until he runs out of time. My maternal grandfather and uncle both died at 61. They were only 11 years older than I am now. I'd like the opportunity they never got to work without quotidian interruptions – although such interruptions can be productive. So many poems have been lost because of my peripatetic history, however I'm still writing.

I'm conscious of the sustained silence of talented poets like Rob Allan, Julia Allen, Blair French, Brian Garrett, Hugh Lauder, Owen Leeming and Michael Mintrom; also of the passing of Michael August, Iain Lonie, Joanna Paul, Nancy Ragland and Bill Sewell. The violent death, at 24, of photographer Reiko Kunimatsu stays with me; the loss seems obscene when, in fact, it is more natural than the late resurgence of Gordon Challis.

I wear a ring that was made in Moesia shortly after the death of Ovid. Whenever I'm worried by trivia I admire the bezel. It tells me that I have all the time in the world, which is no time at all.


Freighters destabilized by their cargo,
poets nose into the bar
and take on water.
The resigned smile of a lemon slice;
the parasol that drags like an anchor.
What a to do
now there's nothing to be done.


The strength of the current
measureless, everyone was swept
off - even the historian
before he could take note.
You never know muttered Mum,
tucking in her skirts
as the sun came up for air.


Too ridiculous alluding to Odysseus:
One man they hate and another they love...
The terror of being
overlooked, the pleasure of obscurity
balance on a blade of grass
moved by sharp gusts rather than gods
who are edgy yet blunt.


You can't take the faces with you
but they come. No miracle
on the road, just haze
and the dust ahead, although
direction is neither here nor there.
The signposts are left-overs:
Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Disneyland.
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