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Poet Laureate David Eggleton: “Everyone is interested now in what poetry can do and what it is saying.” Photo/Supplied

New Poet Laureate David Eggleton on why people trust poetry more than the news

"The authenticity of the emotion in a poem speaks more profoundly now than ever."

From punk poet and pub performer to Poet Laureate – it is, agrees David Eggleton, a hop, skip and a jump from where he was, “or maybe it is a knight’s move in a game of chess, or simply the way things have turned out. I just write my poems and, voilà, they speak of the condition we are in, and there is an audience out there.”

It’s his first day on the job, the Listener is the first call on his Poet Laureate hotline, and Eggleton sounds gratified – “No, keen, keen is a better word” – about taking on the two-year role.

“I never had that career path in mind, but if I look back, I see it is a logical culmination. I have always written public poetry and poetry about history and this question of identity, my own identity and the identity of this country. The things I write about are very much related to the way the nation has chopped and changed and moved around. I enjoy exploring that, the tension between the individual and the society individuals find themselves in.”

Eggleton’s reputation as a poet, art critic and editor began, and in many ways still exists, on the margins of New Zealand’s cultural life, a satiric poet delivering his distinctive blend of the vernacular and the lyrical, the hard-hitting and achingly astute, from a street-level launchpad of pubs and cafes, student unions and poetry slams.

Born in Auckland in 1952, he spent much of his early childhood in Fiji – his mother was Rotuman and his father Palagi, “so he had advantages of the colonial mindset of the time and my mother was taken up into that”.

He was nine when the family returned to New Zealand, to Māngere East in South Auckland. He left school early, and dropped out of university. “There was a disconnect between what I was hearing and what I was reading. I felt instinctively it wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do. I saw in high culture you were supposed to write this sort of poem and I rejected that entirely.”

He published his own poetry broadsheets and forged a path as a performance poet, combining the literary legacy of James K Baxter, Hone Tuwhare and Denis Glover with the spirited idiom of popular entertainers such as Billy T James and Fred Dagg and the vernacular of the factory floor and the workshed.

“They were attitudes that weren’t really being expressed. They were being modified or domesticated, tamed down, made anodyne. I was interested in that more colourful side, learning a respect for the vernacular, the Kiwi idiom.”

But this, he says, was at an “extreme angle” to the mainstream literature of the time. Poetry was like modernism, a rarefied concept with gatekeepers on patrol: “This has remained fairly true.”

His poetry was rejected by the literary publications of the day: too raw, too rough, too inappropriate. “But I kept going with the same kind of attitude. Perhaps my craft was becoming more refined, but I still have the same underlying, not antagonism but tensions in my approach to living in this country.”

Those tensions, the rhythm, the sheer insistence of his voice, have since won him a raft of awards for poetry and art criticism. He has made documentaries, CDs and short films and written histories of New Zealand rock music and photography.

Now based in Dunedin, he was editor of Landfall from 2009 to 2017 and co-editor of the Phantom Billstickers Cafe Reader. His seventh collection of poems, The Conch Trumpet, won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 2016, the same year he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Poetry.

Where once he stood on the margins, now, he says, “everyone considers themselves a bit of an outsider. We are clustering together in this strange new world, thanks to technology and globalisation, but underlying that we still have this strong iconography that represents the spirit of this place, so there’s tremendous tension going on with that globalisation.”

Within this strange new world, poetry seems to be growing in importance, he says. “You only have to notice the sheer number of poets around, and people in the arts generally. We have got to a situation where people trust poems more than they trust the news – the authenticity of the emotion in a poem speaks more profoundly now than ever. Poetry went through a bit of a lull in the early 2000s, when it didn’t seem to have much to say to ordinary people, but everyone is interested now in what poetry can do and what it is saying.”

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.