Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Gallery Readings

The evening takes place in a gallery where the best contemporary New Zealand painting is on show. It's a dealer gallery; the exhibitions change every fortnight. Perhaps it's Ralph Hotere whose paintings are on the walls, or Colin McCahon, or Milan Mrkusich. In those days worth thousands of dollars; these days probably millions.

The narrator is comfortable in these surroundings. He writes about art—reviews, essays, even a book—so to him the paintings are the perfect backdrop, the perfect stage design. He likes the space; hessian walls, good acoustics. Intimate. Add to that an audience that enjoys—perhaps even delights in—being there.

It's near the end of the evening. Now the narrator is where he has always wanted to be, out in front of a rock band.

The poet & the narrator have taken it in turns to read. Then a break so the audience can buy a coffee next door, or some wine further down the road. The poet reads first when they start up again, followed by the narrator whose set this time is four blues written especially for this performance & backed by the band. They're simple lyrics; rhymed, one piece in ¾ time, another working over & around the famous Booker T. Green Onions riff. "Yr poems & yr songs will never right the wrongs that you have done to me/ & yet yr wrongs will never cloud the songs that you have sung to me....."

Then the narrator segues into Route 66. Driving rock, the Stones in everybody's mind, getting into everybody's blood. People get up & start to dance. The gallery owner is in the middle of them, then he suddenly rushes across to the switchbox shouting "the paintings, the paintings" & turns the power off. The room is plunged into silent darkness. A minute later the power is back on & everybody is dancing again. The narrator leaves the band to carry on on its own & joins the throng. The poet prowls the room looking for someone to take home & bed. Eventually everybody goes home happy.

The joint gallery readings are why the narrator & the poet are forever paired in the collective memory:
"...In the Barry Lett Art Gallery
I heard Mark Young and David Mitchell lay down their lines."
Bob Orr: Jerusalem

"My memories of Mark in Auckland are of poetry readings at Barry Lett Galleries and at the Wynyard Tavern. Dave Mitchell was part of a double act that combined the rhapsodic, the laconic and the hip. Wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke, through which I still see art works by Ralph Hotere and Colin McCahon, as though smoky nicotine were one of the cultural pigmentations of the ’60s; with lots of flagon red wine from the Henderson valley, drugs that were subculture rather than mainstream entertainment, and the jazz of Thelonious Monk (‘Round Midnight’), these occasions set my youthful benchmarks and probably gave me much of the life I’ve had. For which I am most grateful. "
Ian Wedde: Antipodean Hipster (A review of The right foot of the giant)
but they were never friends though something / more than acquaintances. They had gone to the same secondary school; for four years they shared the same turf; but the poet was a year ahead of the narrator, & in the hierarchy of schools, that meant their paths never crossed. The narrator was something of a jock—rugby, cricket, basketball—who later played in the school orchestra, had one of the leads in a rare school play, a Shakespeare suite directed by Richard Campion, the father of filmmaker Jane, who was teaching there at the time. He never came across the poet in any of these activities.

They probably met sometime after the poet went to university, in that overlap between uni & the teachers' training college of shared parties, shared pubs, shared acquaintances. The narrator has no idea of when. But Wellington in those days was, though small, a very active city; & because it was small, anybody who was into anything soon got to know everybody else who was also into something. The musicians knew the painters knew the poets knew the actors knew the gays knew the dopesmokers knew the dancers.

The first firm date that can be put on anything was 1963, when the narrator, having taken over as editor of a little magazine, included some of the poet's pieces in it. This does not mean that the narrator discovered the poet; far from it. But he did discover a kindred spirit in that both of them were influenced by the new American poets. It might be said that they walked the same street, though on different sides of it, but it was a far distant street from the main road of New Zealand poetry.

The narrator moved to Auckland, the poet went overseas, came back, also moved to Auckland. The narrator had the knack of turning out quasi-SoQ poems which he placed in the leading N.Z. literary magazines, & some of which were subsequently included in a number of overseas anthologies. He began to develop a reputation which he used to parlay publication of the poems that meant much more to him, but generally two or so years after he'd written them. The poet remained much more true to his craft, which meant he didn't publish much. The problem for both of them was that there were only a very small number of literary magazines in N.Z., & they were all running behind the times.

The next bit is guesswork, an interpretation of a number of invitations that are posted in a gallery on the narrator's page at the new zealand electronic poetry centre. The first is a mainstream reading, the narrator appearing as one of ten readers. The poet does not appear, though there is a note in Big Smoke that credits him with arranging it though the narrator believes (a) that if he'd organized it he'd be reading & (b) that the poet would never have allowed the wanky name that appears on the poster as presenting the evening. What is important is that it was the first reading in a newly opened gallery. The second invitation is the shape of things to come, a combined reading by the poet & the narrator, with a rock band in the mix.

There were at least another four readings over the next three years. The poet believes that there was another one at the usual gallery, & knows of one more held in a different gallery in town. Some of the readings had music, a couple had another poet included, Hone Tuwhare in one, James K. Baxter in another. But however many there were & what format they took, they had one thing in common—the poet & the narrator working as a tag team. Different styles, different approaches, but each was the perfect foil for the other.

These days, with so many places to publish & such ease to do so, one sometimes forgets just how hard it could be to disseminate one's work, especially for those working outside the traditional & isolate mainstream of a nation's poetry & who did not see any importance or necessity in being "nationalistic" in their subject matter when the world was becoming more & more international. Add to that a felt need to show that there were other, equally valid—in the eyes of the poet & the narrator, even more valid—traditions that one could draw from, other paths to follow. The gallery readings did all that.

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