Brian Turnerby Tim Watkin
Southern poet and golf caddy
Among the caddies at last month's New Zealand Golf Open was a droll old poet from Maniototo. None other than Brian Turner - poet laureate, brother of Glenn and Greg, and author of a new collection called Footfall, which is out this week - caddying for his old mate Peter Fowler. Through the 7th, 8th and 9th holes of the oh-so manicured Gulf Harbour, the poet from the wild south answered a few questions, hardly taking his eye off Fowler's golf ball.
What's a good Southern-man poet doing in a posh northern golf club? I like a lot of the guys who are here to caddy and play. I've known them going back years. And I like golf courses, the challenges they offer and all that ... They are often quite beautiful objects. The surroundings are often not.
How did you get into caddying? In the late 80s, I offered to work for my young brother Greg and started going off to tournaments with him. I've done it ever since for two or three months a year.
Is this the way you pay for the daily bread in among the poems? It's certainly supplemented my income. If you're a straight poet, it's hard. So I've made money out of writing books on or with sportsmen, which has been very useful. I've also been able to get some writer-in-residence stuff, though - Burns Fellowship and others - which if I hadn't written poems I wouldn't have got.
You're coming to the end of your two years as Te Mata Estate poet laureate this week. How's it been? Oh, enjoyable, actually. I haven't done anything other than what I normally do, by and large.What does the job involve? As far as I can see, there are no requirements. They do expect you to write enough poems to produce a collection of consequence at the end of two years, though.
Is it a good idea, having a poet laureate? It has made more people aware of the fact that poetry is increasingly taken seriously. Some find it a bit odd that someone like me with the sorts of interests I have would be as consumed by poetry as I am.
So, why are you as consumed with poetry as you are? Because, along with friendship, it's the most important thing in life for me. It sounds very lofty, but I probably value friendship and poetry more than anything else. From my early twenties I realised that poetry was going to be important to me for as long as I was around. I don't know why that is. I like language so much. I like what you can do with it. I like the surprises that it brings. I like it as a way of expressing oneself and the things one feels most strongly about, sometimes. I mean, language is beautiful. It can be rigorous. It takes you into territory that you would not have conceived of going to.
You talk as if poetry's a little place ... Half of my poems are actually about the politics of relationships or relationships themselves. It's a major mistake to park me in the box "landscape poet", but it's been convenient for some people to do that.
When you come up to Auckland, with the faster pace, consumer environment and artificial golf-town like this, does it reinforce the idea that there's an older New Zealand in the South Island that's quite detached from the North Island? Absolutely. And they've been getting further and further apart. Except for the flight of the wealthy to Wanaka and Queenstown and the like. Often, they're people who have come from places that were formerly pleasant and they're not so pleasant any more, so they want to go down there and do the same thing again. Stuff that up. The north of New Zealand is becoming less like the New Zealand of old. Depending on your predilection, you can say that's a good thing or bad thing, but, for the likes of me, the modern world is often execrable. I'm one who actually liked New Zealand 30 years ago.
Which is an increasingly unpopular view, isn't it? The accepted version is that it was a stilted, stuffy place. But I never found it like that. It was different. There were more fish around, fewer tourists and it was easier to shoot a deer. And social life was good because people had parties all the time and sing-songs. What's so good about all the crap now?
If you could change one thing about New Zealand now, what would it be? It all starts with environment. If we look after the world around us properly, other things will follow. I'm anti increasing the population of New Zealand. I think we've got enough. Our duty is to try to see if we can look after the people we have and the country. And if people say we need more and more people, I'd say, "For what reason?" To consume more and more? And at what point are you going to stop? What's the optimum number? No one will give you that answer. We don't call people people any more, we call them consumers. Everyone gobbles and guzzles all the time.
You said a couple of years ago that the reputation you have for cussedness is a front for a lack of confidence. I've always felt I lacked faith one way or another, and I've always been quite highly strung. You know, precariousness being the muse of one's time, or something like that. I don't see myself as particularly cussed. It's just that in New Zealand today if you're not perennially smiling, if you're not happy-go-lucky all the time, somehow you're said to be letting the side down. The last thing we can have is someone who takes issue with things. I was brought up in a family circle where, if you wanted to assert something, you had to present an argument for it. No one was just going to agree with you. In New Zealand now, people pass off their impressions all the time as fact.
The new poems, what are they about? There's quite a lot about - to use an overworked term - one's personal identity and the identity one has as a consequence of where one lives. I've tried to examine what it is that I like about where I am, so I guess they're ruminations on people and places quite often, with me at the centre sometimes, but not always. And as always in mine there's some self-mockery, some satire, some political comment.
Your fonder memories
are the shiny haloes
on clear days
on your way home.
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