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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows

My Victorian Year

page 31

My Victorian Year

The record shows that in 1984 when I had the writing fellowship at Victoria, I completed a big historical novel, a short comic novel, a book of selected poems, an anthology of New Zealand poetry, and a new book of poems called Tendering. An output of such heroic proportions needs to be treated with kindly scepticism.

Nineteen-eighty-four was indeed a good year for me: a year whose garrulous tides went in and out. It allowed me to complete much that was not, and to commit much that would not otherwise have got past the warm-up. Symmes Hole, a big 'hysterical' novel, was published in 1986: what happened to it in 1984 was the application of bromides. Survival Arts, described as a 'comic novel', was published in 1988: the crippled weka that limps out the tragic rhythm of the book's heart was one I'd seen when, self-marooned in the Sounds, I was finishing the first draft of Symmes Hole. It's hard for me to find the place of my Victorian year within these continuities. I guess, and could check, but do not remember, that the Survival Arts story that continued where Symmes Hole stopped, began to be written in 1984.

The note at the front of Driving into the Storm: selected poems says, 'Much of the work was done while I had the writing fellowship at Victoria University, and would have been difficult without that time.' The book was published in 1987, which suggests delays. It went through a hesitant development that was steadied at the editorial end by Michele Leggott who gave me the nerve to select and probably did most of it. At the production end, a set of brilliant cover designs by Gavin Chilcott, now in the collection of the Hocken Library in Dunedin, and not viewed by me until 1998, annotate a difficult birth. It was not during my Victorian year that these lovely designs were made. I saw smudged photocopies of a couple of them, which were not used. I never bonded with the hideous factory production that eventuated. I also, now, rediscover another phrase from the introduction: 'This selection stops at a point where I'd begun to reconsider what I was doing in writing.'

A mild sense of the ominous enters at this 'point', shepherded by a book that gave way to production what it owed to integrity—a 'point' which is also the point at which the end of one novel became the beginning of another. This flow-on I cannot find in my memory of the Victorian year. What I do remember very clearly, is the final stage of the co-editing of the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, published in 1985. What this involved for me, at the most personal level, was the discovery of a scepticism about what I was doing with writing, which would evolve into dislike, and subsequently into a decision to step away from the burbling storm-drain of narrative out of which books came by means of a process more like bucketing than thinking.

The work of editing a large anthology is profoundly humbling. You encounter not only the few, piercing moments of great writing, highly individual and remembered as absolutely specific, but also the immense emotional force of the collective minor. There is nothing wrong with the page 32 innate elitism of all writing with pretensions to individuality. But what I began to encounter in myself, as I looked into the mirror of the anthology, was more like snobbery: the critically endorsed belief that much of the value of what I wrote consisted in its individuality, in stylistic skiting.

This beginning of disenchantment; this first stirring of a sense of fraudulence; this desire to 'collect' the poems I'd written mostly in order to be able to start again—what was happening, was that my Victorian year with its surging tides of production was also the year in which I began, not yet deliberately, to stop writing.

What I remember most clearly of all about the year, with immense nostalgic anticipation (and apart from the dreamlike, fabulous, infantile, corrupting fantasy of earning money without any sense of transaction), is the writing of most of the poems in Tendering, presumably at the 'point where I'd begun to reconsider what I was doing in writing'. The writing of much of this book came out of the evolutionary crisis of my Victorian year. It happened on the evolved side of my doubts, over the fence of Driving into the Storm. The key poem in it was 'The Relocation of Railway Hut 49', in which the tale of my writing shed at home was interwoven with the tale of my great-grandfather, Heinrich Augustus Wedde, and with The Tempest. I still enjoy the way the language of this poem, and of the others in the book, stirs up 'the dutiful oil of narrative' (a grizzling phrase from the introduction to Driving into the Storm). There's a reference in 'The Relocation' to 'contenders' who are 'shooting up katipo venom'—they would crop up again in Survival Arts as one of that novel's insane variations on nationalism, which I do remember writing a lot of in the '49' shed, after my Victorian year. I particularly remember enjoying sitting in the scruffily bucolic haven of the shed, reading up about tank warfare in Vietnam (not in the University library) and the bizarre history of tarantula cults (deep in the cobwebby parts of the University library, which I visited with a mild sense of post-Victorian trespass). The mercilessly mechanical narrative structure of this 'comic novel', together with its manifest loathing of exposition, and its relish of mundane melodrama (I love the book)—these character traits also give notice of advancing scepticism and even boredom, and indeed the large novel about Chinese Opera that followed is, to this day, on hold pending my return to the writing I began to stop doing in 1984.

This is not to say my Victorian year was the one that stopped me writing. On the contrary, it was the one that made it possible for me to start again, which, fifteen years later, I eagerly look forward to doing. This is a paradox that will be recognised by other writers whose shit-detectors have been given the time to assist them grow out of their own needy relationship with writing. And let's be a little more frank—I didn't really 'stop', with all the chaste melodrama that implies. I relocated the effort, much as I'd relocated the Railways shed. My Victorian year helped me to start that process. It was a life-saver. 'The Relocation' is my testimonial.