The Pacific Hub
Interview with Iain Britton by Amatoritsero Ede
Amatoritsero Ede: Could you describe the poetic scene in New Zealand for those not familiar with it.
Iain Briton: The New Zealand poetic scene is both old and new, depending upon the way you want to look at it. Because we are a Pacific nation and one of the last island groups to be inhabited over a thousand years ago, Polynesian culture developed here into a very refined state. For the Maori, poetry, in the form of songs, chants, dances, legends and myths has been evolving for a very long time. Since the mid-nineteenth century, when the Europeans first started colonising these islands, poetry has been transported here with all other influences. We are a young country in the literary sense. The twentieth century saw the poetic changes that affected most English-speaking countries. However, New Zealand’s own poetic language became more noticeable after World War II and began to make tremendous strides towards something uniquely “us” during the 60s and 70s. The influence of modern contemporary American poetry at the time seemed to ‘free up’ the prevalent traditional structures of New Zealand poets writing then. With the renaissance of Maori language and culture, a new form of poetry is emerging, a very special Pacific mix of expression. New Zealand poets have no problems assimilating Maori words, stories, proverbs, chants into their work. Briefly, outside influences are inevitable in such a small country dependent of the bigger, wider world, but there is a determination to strive for our own ‘multi-levelled indigenous’ poetic form. I think we are succeeding and the future looks good. The poetry scene in New Zealand is strong and full of invention.
A.E.: What propelled you to poetry and who have been your influences.
I.B.: I have been writing poetry seriously for only 7 years, but I have been writing for a lot longer than that. I spent many years in London living in a single bedsit writing 4 or 5 novels – all unpublished, all unpublishable and now all consigned to the incinerator. That genre came to a grinding halt and then I started writing plays – dozens of them. At the time I was living in a very small town in the North Island of New Zealand and I used to have play readings in houses and at the local hall, exploiting the talents of the community. When my interest in playwriting dissipated, there was a long hiatus when I was not sure which way to swing. I had always been a great reader of poetry. I had tried writing it, tried publishing it. A lecturer once introduced me to the work of Robert Lowell. That was the catalyst, I suppose. After seeing and hearing Lowell at the ICA in London, there was no stopping my drive to be a poet. It meant years of study, determination and a belief to strive to be the best I could possibly be. I am not there yet, but I am working on it. My influences have been numerous. As I read and wrote, I was influenced by numerous poets and in no particular order – the Romantics, Yeats, Dylan and RS Thomas, Eliot, the War poets, Pound, Larkin, Bunting, Heaney, Muldoon, Creeley, Ashbery, Berryman and so on. Whoever I picked up became an influence, a learning tool, you might say.
A.E.: Is there much experimentation in New Zealand poetic efforts?
I.B.: Yes, there is. I think some of my comments in the answer to your first question might suggest the curiosity and vigour New Zealand poets display when opening themselves to influences. All the various schools of postmodern poetics have left an indelible mark on our literature and poets have absorbed them and adjusted their thinking in the pursuit of establishing an original, identifiable New Zealand form of poetry.
A.E.: What is your thematic preoccupation in writing poetry; do you note any consistent subject in your own work?
I.B.: As my poetry has developed and gone through growth spurts, the eclectic bombardments of poets read and digested and the slow but sure emergence of individual thought and preoccupation, certain themes do keep entering my poems. I went to a very sectarian church school when I was very young. Although I was a non-believer, I was subjected to the religious character of the school. My parents thought a small school with a strong Christian base would be educationally better and safer than a larger state school. Nevertheless, I was tremendously affected by their beliefs and the hangover continues to this day and my poetry can reflect aspects of their teachings, as I go about exploring my religious/philosophical reasons for living with my shadow on this earth. Maori mythology has also interwoven itself into my own poetical cosmos.
A.E.: What is funding for the arts like in New Zealand?
I.B.: New Zealand is a very, very small place and the government funding reflects that smallness. Creative New Zealand (the government arts agency) subsidizes, as best as it can, the publishing and promotion of writers. Some publishers just couldn’t print poets without their financial input. I think most countries depend, by and large, on state funding for their publishing well-being. Creative New Zealand also arranges for poets to travel the country and even to venture abroad to cities like New York, London and Berlin. Grants are also awarded to poets on application to assist with ‘works in progress’.
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #43 - June 2006. ISSN 1479-425X
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002. Editor: Amatoritsero Ede