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When literary festivals go bad: CK Stead and Steve Braunias on famous poets, drunk as motherfuckers live on stage

The good and the great of world literature are about to descend as guest speakers at the 2017 Auckland Writers Festival. Will anyone go off the rails? CK Stead (followed by Steve Braunias, in a postscript) recall writers behaving badly onstage.

In my experience problems at readings usually involve booze. I remember Jim Baxter being carried to the stage at Auckland University, clamped on either side by Rex Fairburn and Allen Curnow, his galoshes swinging and not touching the floor. I made a scene of that in my novel All Visitors Ashore. Glover was always drunk but that did not spoil his reading, which was colourful and dramatic. I was to read once somewhere in Canada with two or three poets including Elizabeth Smart, famous as the author of By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept. When we went on stage Smart had not appeared, and word came that she was somewhere in the building, drunk and weeping, refusing to emerge. The reading went on without her, and she went on weeping.

Smart was the wife of George Barker and mother of quite a number (possibly six?) of his children, and there is another connection here with poetry and booze. At a League of Canadian poets festival in Toronto in 1981 I got to know the poet Elaine Feinstein, best known at the time as the recipient of a famous letter from Charles Olsen (of the Maximus poems) where he set out to make known his very serious poetic theory (something to do with breath/breathing). This letter and its theory had become a gospel for the American Black Mountain poets, and so Elaine had earned a kind of accidental fame from it. She and I had visited a zoo together, and for some reason I had missed her reading. She said never mind, you’re going to be in England soon and I’m to read at Oxford with George Barker and WS Graham. Come and hear me there. So I took the train up from London. There was a train back at 10.30 and then not another until 1 or 2 am (This was before 24-hour Oxford Tube buses were running.) The programme was to be Graham, Feinstein and Barker in that order, but both the gentlemen poets were drunk and neither would agree to go last, arguing that by then they would be even drunker. So Feinstein, who was sober, agreed to go last. Both men, however, went monstrously over their allotted time, and before we got to Elaine I had to run for my train.

Another drunk I read with, once in London and once at the King’s Lynn Festival, was Peter Reading. He was never sober but seemed to read better for the booze. It removed his inhibitions and liberated him into the strange eccentricities of his poems, which I admire.

In 1965 at the Commonwealth Arts Festival I read at the Royal Court Theatre in London with Stevie Smith and others. We sat on the stage in a row, all except Stevie, who hid behind a special curtain until it was her turn to read. She read quite well, but then retired again behind the curtain until her turn came round again. It was understood, it seemed, that she preferred not to be seen more than was absolutely necessary.

Stevie Smith, 1954 (Photo by Leslie Davis/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Returning to that Baxter occasion, and to George Barker: it was 1952, I was a student poet and Baxter lent me his copy of The True Confessions of George Barker which he felt had liberated him in some ways and might do the same for me. I still have it, foxed and falling apart – a small pink paperback. It was said TS Eliot at Faber had refused to publish the collection because it was obscene, so it had been done by Fore Publications Ltd in 1950. It includes lines like

Swill

        Guzzle and copulate and guzzle

And copulate and swill until

        You break up like a jigsaw puzzle

Shattered with smiles.

 

I didn’t learn any lessons from it – though I did know by heart (and still do) Barker’s sonnet to his mother, which begins:

 

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,

Under the window where I often found her

Sitting huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,

Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand…

 

I should have returned the little pink book but kept it as a memento of JKB in his drunken days.

James K Baxter (Image: Youtube)

Postscript by Steve Braunias: “Glover,” Karl writes, “was always drunk.” I met Denis Glover when the two of us performed our poetry in Wellington and Palmerston North, and he was drunk at breakfast, at lunch, but not at dinner, because he had collapsed into an alcoholic stupor by then.

It was 1979, orientation week. I was 18 and he had a year to live. My university career was just beginning which is to say it was just about to end: I studied at Victoria University for six weeks before dropping out, none the wiser and in fact more confused than ever, so depressed that I spent most of that six weeks lying down in my room at the Weir House hostel, too nervous to go downstairs for meals with other students – I survived by getting up before dawn, and creeping along Lambton Quay, where I would steal loaves of bread and bottles of milk left in the doorways of offices yet to open. But one day there was a note left under my door, left by a friend from school, who had adapted well to university life and was some sort of big wheel on an orientation committee. The note explained that he had booked Denis Glover to read his poems on the campus at Victoria, and later that same day at Massey University in Palmerston North; he knew I wrote verse, so would I like to perform alongside Glover? Maybe I wasn’t depressed. Maybe I was just lazy. Certainly I was deluded that my boring, sensitive lines of verse had merit, and I jumped at the chance to meet a living legend of New Zealand literature.

Denis Glover! “The Magpies”, the most famous poem ever written in New Zealand – the only famous poem. Caxton Press, “Sings Harry”, Landfall. Also, I owned a copy of Hot Water Sailor, his comic autobiography, full of wonderful silliness: “Nakedness is proper, even desirable, when taking a bath.” And there he was, in person, cackling, drunk, very personable, a big man stooped with age, at his cottage in Breaker Bay with big windows looking out to a cold, foaming sea – Wellington in summertime. There was a long table in the kitchen. Every inch of it was taken up with bottles. Bottles of wine, beer, spirits, mostly empty but an inch or two here and there.

A young Denis Glover (left)

He wore a hat, scarf, tweed jacket with wooden buttons, corduroy trousers. The eyes were watery but shone with a fierce colour. He was bearded, and he had a lovely smile. The most prominent feature of his face was his schnozz, a hooter swollen and red with booze. He was happy to receive guests, happy to be taken for an outing, happy to sit and drink. “We actually have to go,” said my friend. “Aresehole,” said Glover, not at all happily.

But he surrendered, and was in grand spirits at the campus, where he read his poems in a beautiful voice. I recited my dreary and fatuous observations about nothing and he said very encouraging things. He was a good soul. Kevin Ireland wrote of Glover after his death, “an awkward decent man.” We were next driven to parliament, where for some reason or another we were presented on the front steps to Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. His handshake was wet and flimsy. Then back in the car, for a fast dash up the line to Palmerston North; Glover was funny as hell, telling tall stories about writers and the Navy from the back seat, all the while honking up vast quantities of white snuff that he kept in a pretty silver case. Bottles of alcohol rolled on the floor by his feet. Clink-clink. Honk! Clink-clink. We drove past a wetland somewhere approaching the Kapiti Coast and he talked at great length and in detail about it.

There was a bathroom stop at a pub in Shannon, and a drink. There were sandwiches at the campus, plus a drink. We gave two readings, one in the early afternoon, another at about 6pm; the hours inbetween were devoted to hard liquor. I was a soft youth and spent most of the afternoon vomiting in a sink. Glover was sodden and relentless, also legless. My friend couldn’t lift him or carry him, and I was no help. Word went around and next thing you know Glover was put in a wheelchair. He thought this was a great joke, and he asked for a blanket to put over his knees. He was wheeled thus onto the stage and he gave his best reading of the day. He had his books of verse with him, and had marked poems with strips of paper; when he got to them, though, he took a quick look, put the book down, and read from memory, in that beautiful voice. There was one with a line about “religious fudge”; there was one about Sumner (“the cars roll down to Sumner/ on a Sunday”) by request from a woman in the audience; another woman asked for “Magpies”, and he quardled charmingly. There was a lot of laughter and loud applause.

As soon as it was over he got angry about something and we swore furious abuse at each other and it was just a really bad scene. Glover was an old drunk. Kevin Ireland’s poem for Glover begins, “you left the land not only poorer/ but more sober”. He slept all the way back to Wellington. We drove past the dark wetland in silence, and I remembered how knowledgeably he spoke about it. I phoned him a few days afterwards, and apologised for calling him names; it doesn’t matter, he said, all’s well, come over any time you like. No alcohol for you, he said. You fancy that snuff, though, don’t you, boy?, he said. He was gentle and kind, a decent man. I wanted to visit but I quit university and got a job which came with a broom. I never saw him again. Denis Glover died the following August, aged 67.


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