Photo credit: Marti Friedlander
CK Stead is our new Poet Laureate.
I was in the thick of stand-still, rush-hour traffic on the way to a South Auckland School this morning when I heard the news and it gave me a much needed boost. Poetry has always been a primary love in the broad spectrum of Karl’s work. His poetry catches your attention on so many levels because his poems become a meeting ground for intellect, heart, experience, musicality, craft, acumen, a history of reading and thought, engagement with the world in all its physical, human and temporal manifestations.
I am delighted to celebrate this result.
Here is a snippet from an interview I did with Karl for Poetry Shelf last year:
Your poems are delightfully complex packages that offer countless rewards for the reader—musicality, wit, acute intelligence, lucidity, warmth, intimacy, playfulness, an enviable history of reading, irony, sensual detail, humour, lyricism. What are key things for you when you write a poem?
It has to be a meeting of words and feeling, in which the words are at the very least equal in importance, and the feeling can be of any kind, not just one kind. I like wit, think laughter can be tonic, but of course it doesn’t fit all occasions.
There were a number of significant poets in NZ from the 1940s onwards and you have interacted with many of them (Curnow, Mason, Glover, Baxter and so on). Were there any in particular whose poetry struck a profound chord with you?
Curnow was always the most important for me. But when I was young Fairburn’s lyricism seemed very attractive; Glover at his rare best (the Sing’s Harry poems); Mason likewise (‘Be Swift O sun’); Baxter – especially in his later poems: they have all been important to me.
Do you think your writing has changed over time? I see an increased tenderness, a contemplative backward gaze, moments where you poke fun at and/or revisit the younger ‘Karls,’ a moving and poetic engagement with age, writerly ghosts and death. Yet still there is that love and that keen intelligence that penetrates every line you write.
You are very kind! I certainly feel ‘older and wiser’ in the sense that things don’t matter so much, one accepts the fact of human folly and one’s own share in it. Indignation doesn’t stop, but there is a kind of weary acceptance, and laughter. I still feel embarrassment – especially when looking back – but I recognize that as not only a safeguard against social mistakes, but also as another manifestation of ego, as if one feels one should be exempt from folly.
There have been shifting attitudes to the ‘New Zealand’ label since Curnow started calling for a national identity (he was laying the foundation stones that we then had the privilege to use as we might). Does it make a difference that you are writing in New Zealand? Does a sense of home matter to you?
When I was young I was a literary nationalist. Now I regard nationalism as a form of tribalism and the result of genetic programming no longer suitable or safe in the modern world. So I have changed a lot. But I still recognize regional elements as important, even essential, in the poetic process. I think Curnow himself became more a regional poet and less a nationalist one; but the arguments that had swirled around all that had had the effect of committing him to positions which he didn’t want to resile from, so he remained the committed nationalist, perhaps after the need had passed.
What irks you in poetry? What delights you?
I suppose any kind of excess, of language or of feeling; and solemnity – especially the sense that poetry is taking itself too seriously and asking for special respect.
There are many kinds of delight in poetry, but almost all of them involve economy. If an idea or an experience or a scene or a personality or whatever can be conveyed as well in 10 words as in 20, those 10 words will be full of an energy which the more relaxed and expansive version lacks. They will be radio-active.
Name three NZ poetry books that you have loved.
Singling out living poets might be invidious, but here are three by poets now dead: You will know when you get there (Curnow); Jerusalem Sonnets (Baxter); Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby (David Mitchel).
The full interview here.