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“I was rather the bad boy in New Zealand literature”: C. K. Stead at 85

Interview by Louis Klee.

Author C. K. Stead in London

C. K. Stead, now 85-years-old, is the 2015-2017 Poet Laureate of New Zealand and an enduring presence in New Zealand literature. He was born in Auckland in 1932 and has lived there for much of his life. He writes poetry, prose, and criticism. ‘His talent’, as Karl Miller writes, ‘is more than ambidextrous. To excel as a poet, novelist and critic is rarer than we tend to think.’ His 1964 book The New Poetic played a significant role in shifting the reception of T. S. Eliot. It has remained a best seller and influenced writers such as Seamus Heaney, who wrote that engaging with Eliot’s work and Stead’s reading of him was one of ‘the formative experiences for my generation’; that: ‘The Waste Land in Stead’s reading is the vindication of a poetry of image, texture and suggestiveness; of inspiration; of poetry which writes itself.’ In 2017, Stead published a novel, The Necessary Angel, a collection of poems, In the mirror, and dancing, and collection of short stories, The Name on the Door is Not Mine. He spoke with me on a cloudy November afternoon from his place in Auckland.

3:AM Magazine: When did you start writing?

C. K. Stead: That was when I was in secondary school. I got interested in poetry then and started to write poetry. Then as time went on I began to write fiction as well. But poetry always came first.

3:AM: You spoken in the past about the generosity of older New Zealand writers, especially Charles Brasch, Frank Sargeson, and Allen Curnow. How important were these figures to your formation as a writer?

CKS: They were very important—Sargeson and Curnow particularly. Curnow was my university lecturer and I got to know him very well. And Sargeson I got to know while I was still a student. I mean I’m sure I would have still gone on to become a writer without them but they gave me encouragement. And they also gave me a rather naïve idea of what a great it would be to a New Zealand writer. So when I went overseas and I had two years lecturing in Australia and then I went on to the UK to do a PhD. And all the time I was very determined to come back and establish myself here as a New Zealand writer. And the reason for that, I think, was the example of Curnow and Sargeson.

3:AM: Would things have been different if you stayed in New Zealand?

CKS: That’s hard to imagine really. Most New Zealanders want to travel overseas. We’re a great travelling nation. It’s hard to imagine simply not moving from here, especially as time went on and became cheaper and easier. When I first travelled it was four and a half weeks by sea each way.

3:AM: Did you enjoy your time in the UK?

CKS: It was marvellous. I was offered an academic job there but I came scuttling back because I was afraid if I stayed any more I would like it so much I wouldn’t want to leave. So I got an academic job here and I always was very keen to have my sabbatical leave. Even before I left the university I had almost annual visits to the UK. I’ve lived two-thirds of my life in New Zealand and one third in the UK and France.

3:AM: One of your most revered works is The New Poetic, published in 1964 and based on your PhD research. How do you view that book today?

CKS: I think it still makes perfect sense. There are two ways of looking at it. One is its effect on my life. It established me academically. I had a rapid rise in the academic system. The world was open to me. I had the possibility of jobs anywhere in the English speaking world and I stuck to New Zealand.

But if you mean what did I think of the content? Well there was a particular way of seeing the poetry of T. S. Eliot and that was essentially inaccurate because it took Eliot on his own terms. He described himself as a ‘classicist’. The book really tracked through things he’d written which indicated what his real experience of writing was and it was not classicist at all: it was highly romantic and unpredictable. So the book revised the view of Eliot and it had an immediate effect. It was a moment in literary history where there was a shift in how a major figure is viewed and that still seems valid to me.

3:AM: In the book’s introduction you wrote that a poem ‘may be said to exist in a triangle, the points of which are, first, the poet, second, his audience, and third, that area of experience which we variously call ‘Reality’, ‘Truth’, or ‘Nature’’, and went on to suggest that the most significant poems that balance both these demands, that are, in effect, equilateral triangles. Has this metaphor proved enduring in how you think about the relationship between poet, reality, and audience?

CKS: I think of that just as a useful metaphor at the time. I don’t think it’s particularly useful or that there’s anything wrong with it. I don’t feel wedded to that as an idea. It was just something along the way.

3:AM: 1964 was also the year you published first volume of poetry, Whether the Will is Free. Has your view of the relationship between your poetry and criticism changed over the years?

CKS: My literary criticism has become less specifically academic. I was really writing literary history in The New Poetic, but my general practice of writing literary criticism is pretty much what it always has been. And there has always been a strong connection between being a writer—I feel as though I know what it feels like inside and I can say I’ve experienced similar problems and solutions from the inside. And I think that’s a great advantage as a critic, because you know what the writer is feeling.

3:AM: Your most recent novel, The Necessary Angel, is set in France, and you’ve engaged with French literature from your very first writing project, an adaptation of Racine’s Andromaque. How important is France and the French language to you as a writer?

CKS: Well there is a lot in The Necessary Angel about the central’s character’s idea of a certain relationship to the French language and what’s wrong with it. He’s a character who has lived most of his adult life in France and so he’s would be much more proficient in French than I am. But I have the same problem that he describes that he learnt French in the wrong way in the first place, he learnt it off the page and so the French language for him is a visual thing. When people speak to him he sees words rather than hearing them and understanding immediately what the sounds mean. And that means however well you know the French language you’ve learnt it the wrong way, not as a native speaker would. That’s my problem as well. On the other hand French is the only language other than English that I know at all well and I’ve read a lot of French literature and I’ve been influenced by the romance of France, the French language, and Paris. So it’s not that surprising that my last book should be set in Paris.

3:AM: Nevertheless, your admiration for France hasn’t prevented you from expressing some misgivings in the past, especially in the context of France’s nuclear tests in French Polynesia and the notorious sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985.

CKS: Oh, well that was just an episode really. And yet it doesn’t alter one’s view of France as a culture, as a literature, as a language—none of that was affected at all. But as a political episode it was extremely unfortunate and a very bad thing for them to do. They were up to bad deeds. But, for me there’s no problem about holding both views. One can love and respects the French language and culture and yet part of the time, like everyone else, the French act like bastards.

3:AM: I was wondering if I could ask you a bit about the way you work. Do you have a routine?

CKS: I used to, especially after the I left the university—I left thirty years ago—I was worried I might just get lazy, you know, because I’d been inside a system of timetables, of deadlines, lectures, and so on. So I had a little office built in the backyard of our house so that when I went to work I would go out one door and into another and that was my working space. I observed very strict office hours. Whatever was my primary task at the time—poetry—I would do that mornings up until lunch, about one o’clock. Then in the afternoons I would do secondary things, like correspondence, reviews, articles for magazines, literary journalism in the afternoon. I kept up that five days a week. But in recent years—the last ten or twenty years—there doesn’t seem to be any kind of need for such a tight regime because the fact that I know that writing is what I do, it’s my habit, and so I just go on writing, whatever the circumstances dictate. I’m much more relaxed about it.

3:AM: Do you heavily revise what you write?

CKS: With fiction I work on a laptop. Normally, if I’m writing a novel, say, I’ve reached page fifty I will go back to about page forty and read through, say, the pervious ten pages and I just revise constantly. I can’t read a page without changing something. I’m aware—this was years ago—when one didn’t work in that way on a laptop or on a computer, and there were more revisions visible. You could see these marvellous manuscripts with arrows, lines. Of course now all that vanishes into the machine and there’s no evidence of what goes on. In a way probably more revision goes on with modern computers than with the old stuff.

3:AM: In both your criticism and your fiction you’ve engaged with the figure of Katherine Mansfield. What is the significance to you of Mansfield and her work?

CKS: The thing about Mansfield is that I got involved in writing about her personally I was thirty-nine I got the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, which gives you most of the year in the South of France, in the town of Menton. At that point I was like only like any other reasonable literary New Zealand person—I had read her works rather randomly. But when I got that fellowship I felt it would be a kind of politeness almost to take her work more seriously. So I read her letters and journals as well as stories and I made a selection of these journals that were a few years later published by Penguin in the Modern Literature Classics. But that meant that I really got into her work very seriously. Her fiction is very uneven. Gradually all of it got published. I mean she died at the age of thirty-four. Some of the stories are brilliant, and quite innovative, but others are failures of one kind of another. The letters or journals are more interesting in a way because she has such a brilliant literary mind. So that’s the continuing interest in her work. She just never stopped writing. She scribbled notes in journals endlessly and this was coloured by her mind, which was such an exceptional and brilliant mind—and entertaining!

3:AM: Have you yourself used correspondences as a literary form?

CKS: When I was overseas I correspondence with Frank Sargeson. I also a very long correspondence—a rather strange one—with Allen Curnow and I lived opposite one another on the street I’m still living on in Auckland. He would send me a poem and rather than just try to tell him verbally what I thought I would write down quite a long analysis of it. So although we correspond partly when I was living on the opposite side of the world we also correspondence when I was on the other side of the street. The result was that there was a very considerable correspondence between us that is now housed in the National Library in Wellington.

3:AM Magazine: Was there something about the nature of the written word and the mediation of the letter that allowed you to express yourself differently?

CKS: Well, with paper you’re potentially committing it forever, so you’re more serious. But you’ve also it gives you more time. If I want to tell him what I think about a poem and it’s subtle and complicate it works out better when you had the time to write it down. It does certainly make a difference.

3:AM: Would you like to talk about your poem ‘S-T-R-O-K-E’?

CKS: I had a stroke in 2004 and when I emerged from it I was briefly dyslexic, which I found very distressing. Fortunately, slowly, the ability to read just came back. But before it had come back I worried about whether I would be able to write again. I began to try to write poems in my head and those are the poems gathered together as ‘S-T-R-O-K-E’. There was a feeling of fear. I wasn’t sure whether I would survive, what the consequences were going to be. I offered those poems to my friend Craig Raine who runs Areté magazine at Oxford. And he said theses are interesting but they don’t work. But would actually rate them quite highly among my poems.

3:AM: What’s your reception like in New Zealand?

CKS: I’ve been around a long time and I’ve gone through periods where I was rather the bad boy in New Zealand literature. Don’t know whether you picked that up? So it hasn’t been exactly a smooth ride. But it feels like I’ve been around so long that maybe people think it’s time I got out. There’s more a feeling of general acceptance than there used to be. I can’t speak to my public except that I know I’ve got one. Clearly I’ve got my identity here.

3:AM: The Necessary Angel ends in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, speculating whether a painting of Cézanne left in a bag in a Paris train station will be mistaken for a bomb. How does this reflect the role art in the contemporary moment?

CKS: I was conscious of all the complexities of that final moment. I was very much aware of wanting to pitch the world of literature and literary people against the larger background where terrible things are happening. So it is very important that it shouldn’t be just what these people think and feel but what they think against the background of social discord and political disruption. That element is very important. The painting matches in standing if you like for high art and the literary preoccupations. The painting might be extinguished, items may be extinguished, but the tradition will not. The political disruption will have to be worse for anything other than the destruction of an individual object or reputation. French culture survived the French revolution so it’s fairly hardy. In fact it absorbed the French revolution into its culture.

Louis Klee
is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. He recently co-won Australia’s most prestigious prize for a single poem, the Peter Porter Prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 1st, 2017.