I’ve been in New Zealand this week to do some poetry readings, the first leg of travel on my Marten Bequest adventures. It’s actually my first-ever time in New Zealand, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I arrived on Monday. What I’ve found is that, much like their currencies, New Zealand and Australia seem quite similar to each other on the surface, but are very different in many ways.
Stepping out into Auckland’s streets, I found a strikingly pretty city with a blend of colonial and modern architecture, all of it just a little bit smaller than I am used to in Brisbane (not that we have that much colonial architecture anymore). The CBD is hilly and cosmopolitan, dotted with sushi shops and cafes, and criss-crossed in places by laneways filled with clusters of design shops, bars, and expensive boutiques. I spent my first afternoon walking, going down to the water and around the Britomart precinct, where people lounged on red beanbags on a pale green lawn, and plants grew vertically in a wonderful ‘green wall’. Next I found a great bookstore, Unity Books on High Street. (“I am looking for a book by a Greek philosopher,” I heard a customer say to the bookseller, “but I forget his name.”)
The bookstore had a huge poetry selection (relatively huge, given that poetry sections normally occupy the space of a large lunchbox). I really wanted to leave with some New Zealand poetry, or at least the work of a New Zealand author. But I made the mistake of reading the first few pages of American author Justin Torres’s We the Animals. The book is about three brothers growing up in a difficult family, and the prose is so remarkable, the stories so vivid and aching and luminous, that it is almost impossible to describe. The best I can tell you is that I read the first three pages in the bookstore and I could not leave without that book. I took it home and tried to read it slowly.
On Tuesday, I started the day with a coffee at Allelujah at St Kevin’s Arcade, on the say-so of a friendly Texan called Thomas whom I met the day earlier at a vintage clothing store on Queen Street. (I was looking at cowboy boots, and we were both lamenting our weariness; before I knew it, I had a hot tip for breakfast with a view.) After breakfast, I wandered down to the art gallery, where I saw some Colin McCahon paintings, along with the work of a range of Kiwi and international artists. McCahon is often regarded as New Zealand’s most important artist, and his paintings regularly incorporate text—especially lines of scripture—often on dark coloured, brownish and black, backgrounds. Martin Edmond’s book Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (Auckland University Press, 2011) is about McCahon’s brief disappearance in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens in 1984. More than that, it’s about Edmond’s attempt to trace McCahon’s journey during the day in which he was missing, and to examine questions of faith and art in the process. I recently wrote a review of Dark Night (forthcoming shortly in Mascara), so I was particularly keen to see some of McCahon’s work—and I wasn’t disappointed. There’s something slightly disturbing yet also very appealing about the paintings. Something questioning and difficult and brilliant.
After leaving the art gallery, I stumbled across a mural commemorating New Zealand’s suffragettes—a sizable mural, too, and a thrilling thing to find. Of course, New Zealand was the first country in the world that allowed women to vote. Something about the pixilated faces of the women in the mural (above) particularly appeals to me. It allows them to be of their time in a way that a naturalistic portrait might have failed to capture. I love their sternness, still staring down the lens over a century on. It seems that they need to be stern, too: some people have wanted them gone even recently, even as murals. But, fortunately, they remain.
Tuesday evening was my first poetry reading, and it was at Poetry Live, New Zealand’s longest-running poetry event. At a whopping 30-plus years old, this weekly reading series is less a fixture and more an institution. I showed up to the Thirsty Dog pub on Karagahape Road (universally known as K Road), and met Rachel, Jeremy, Penny, and Tim, co-organisers of the event (Mike is also a member of the team, but couldn’t make it that day). The pub has a high ceiling and long, dramatic burgundy curtains—a suitably theatrical setting for poetry. There was quite a crowd, with an excellent open mic before and after the guest readers. Laurent Dunningham and Luka Lesson, both of whom live in Melbourne, were the other featured readers. Coming from slam and hip-hop backgrounds (Luka recently won the Australian Poetry Slam), both gave powerful and impressive performances that were also strikingly natural. I can’t wait to hear more—and I will, at the Library Bar, Auckland, on Sunday.