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The Friday Poets: Bill Manhire interviews the greatest New Zealand poet no one has ever heard of

Who the hell is John Gallas when he’s at home? And is he ever at home? Bill Manhire talks to the elusive, much-travelled New Zealand poet.

John Gallas must be New Zealand’s least visible poet.  He left the country in 1970, has mostly lived in the UK since then, but is back in New Zealand for extended periods every year. And he travels, he travels. He has probably been to more parts of the world than the rest of us have even heard of. He has also cycled around the complete coasts of Ireland and the UK.

In other words, although John Gallas gets around, none of us have heard of him. There are a few poems in local literary magazines, and some small publications with Cold Hub. Whereas in the UK there are nine major books issued by leading poetry publisher Carcanet.

This June Carcanet will publish John Gallas’s tenth and most extraordinary book, The Little Sublime Comedy, an ambitious New Zealand modernising of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In good laconic fashion, Gallas turns Dante’s Inferno and Purgatory and Paradise into ‘The Bad Place’, ‘The Better Place’ and ‘The Good Place’, and his primary guide is not the poet Virgil but a rather scruffy version of Samuel Beckett. His Beatrice seems to be a mobile pohutukawa tree.

What follows is adapted from a longer interview that appears in the next issue of Sport.

Mr Gallas, please make the case for New Zealand.

I pine for New Zealand all the time, and I go there all the time – every year for a month or so for the last 30 years – and I write about it because when I go for just a couple of months everything is fresh and sharp and thrillingly wild. Of course, I choose my favourite places. I usually spend half the time in Karamea, at the end of the road, and tramp all over, walk the beaches, sit in the bush, climb mountains, well, big hills, and every second is precious and vivid because it is unusual and limited. I often think of Going Home for Good, but I’d rather NZ was a consuming and perpetual desire, which it is, than a place I take even remotely for granted, or get tired of.

I assume it was the Old English/Old Norse thing that took you off to the UK?  There you were at Oxford, presumably aiming for an academic career. How did all that work out?

I was lucky, I got a Commonwealth Scholarship to Merton College to do Eng Lit 1100-1400 including a big wodge of Old Icelandic, along with Malory, Old English Poetry, and the mystery plays. The Old Icelandic and Old English was a never-ending delight, my tutors were all thrillingly loony (I thought) and I wrote poems that were all gushy and rubbish, which I have since totally thrown away.

John Gallas with a relic in the bush at Fenian Creek near Karamea (Image: Supplied)

 I think that the deep thing that attracted me to the Old Norse world when I was a student was its steady fatalism. “Now there are two choices, and neither is good” etc. I’m guessing that wasn’t the case for you. Or perhaps not importantly the case?

It was the Dark Side I Iiked about Old Icelandic tales, but it was the individual elements that grabbed my soul and got to be part of it: the weather, always mostly bad; the shut-up-and-do-it, no matter how grim; the neat little comments when something was considered or done (‘That was a bit tiring’ after an epic battle) and it was actually worth saying something, or you were obliged to; the persevering characters, intent and mum on their ponies, crossing the blank landscape on some unpleasant mission; and all written as a matter-of-fact.

Oxford was like a good dream, and I worked hard, thought hard, and lived hard, it was a time I suppose when mind and body are at their brightest and, well, sort of cleanest hopes and performance, and to have three years of that at that exact time of your young life in a city so gobsmackingly exciting and beautiful to a new-arrived kiwi was like living at twice the volume of everything I was.

Going to Oxford, I mean both getting there and being there, was the big chance and the big change, and I put all my life and effort into both. I hitch-hiked overland from Teheran, through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Europe, and saw and did stuff that was kind of Only In Books, like walking round Persepolis with a goat, being the only person one day in the ruins of Babylon, marching up the plains on Troy, going barefoot in Damascus (this was 1970 after all), seeing Tyre, Iskenderun, Shiraz, the mosques in Isfahan, the golden domes of Qum, BaghDad, Aleppo, the dervishes in Konya, the tombs of Rumi and Hafez, still sounds like a book really.

In front of his favourite building material near Hokitika (Image: Supplied)

 Make the case for England.

Well, it is perfectly a place that it is fine to be normal in, and leave the dreams to elsewhere, because there’s so much normal. Leicester City, walking in the domestic ruralness of Rutland, empty lanes, droves of Lincolnshire on my bike, the whole coast, Norfolk seaside towns, Ireland a 20 minute plane ride away (I biked there every holiday for ten years, did the whole coast, then north to south), Paris an hour on the train, Europe easy, the rest of the world, Samarkand, Bokhara, Tashkent, Mongolia, Iceland, India, Scandinavia a ferry ride away, you can be as busy as you want.

And I do love England, the weather suits me, and the landscape where’re you go is filled with poets and poems, farmers and cities, fences and hedgerows, everything is known and tamed and owned and so has a special kind of gentle depth, which is the opposite of NZ’s thrillingly quite savage – yep, I think it’s quite savage where I go – land, almost completely devoid of the very things that inhabit England, I mean in the mind, like history, used and used and used land, and, of course, like I said, there are poets in the hedges and at the sea, and painters in the wind and the sunsets. The Mad John’s Walk I did last month was completely ‘informed’ by John Clare – following his route home from an asylum in the south – and all the landscape and life along the way had a literary softness and ghostliness in them that you couldn’t have in NZ ; but then the naked thrill of tramping the Heaphy Track, the first bit along the coast, freed of any literary, historical or civilizing associations makes for a bloody great cold fresh wind of the kind you never get blowing out your mind in England.

I have written lots of poems about Rutland, the fields, crows, snow on the hedges, churches, deserted byways, nature poems almost, about the Norfolk coast, about Lincolnshire, as well as Taniwha caves near Puponga, the Fenian Goldfields near Karamea, and things in Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Niue, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Hawaii, Cook Islands, Tahiti.

With a ceegar in Cuba (Image: Supplied)

 I feel you’ve somehow become – or let yourself become – invisible in New Zealand. As a writer, I mean. You’re not in the obvious poetry anthologies. Did you ever try to publish work back home in any sustained or serious way?

Well, from this distance I have tried; but I think without any presence – immediate responses, readings, involvement in a kind of “scene”, or, perhaps, being known for not being part of a “scene” – there’s no continuance, and therefore no real profile. And when I come over every year all I want to do is trample through the bush and stay in a hut. I’ve had various pieces of writing in Sport and Landfall, a few in ‘Best NZ Poems’ anthologies, and, of course, two wonderful collections, Fucking Poets and Pacifictions from Cold Hub in Lyttleton, but they are, I guess, a bit too few and far between to make any permanent effect on my being around as a poet – because, physically, I’m not.

I’d love to be a New Zealand Poet. Every time I do a reading in the UK I’m introduced as a “New Zealand Poet”, and at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney last year people would come up to talk after as much about experiences of going to and being in New Zealand as to talk about the poems, and being a writer. This, I like very much. However, that’s just about me, and not about my country. When I can do a reading and people don’t talk about visits to Rotorua and The Alps, then I would be a New Zealand poet indeed … but of course that would be in NZ.

I’ve even written a great big, black, treacherous, funny, weird and probably melancholy novel called Bush Bastards, my only big prose thing, set on the South Island and full of violent gold-searching, and even a short prose thing called ‘newzealand’, no less, a Becketty struggle with the luminous memories of my childhood. So I’m there and thereabouts, but sadly not known to be. Perhaps The Little Sublime Comedy, so firmly set in a New Zealand frame, and frame of mind, might make the difference. Here’s hoping.

A poem by John Gallas: Foggy Identities in Paterau

“if your enemies are enemies, you may fear less” – Samoan proverb

 

I bought a bull in Paterau. Some bastard

tailed me home. I parked the pickup quick.

The bandogs howled and twanged their chains. A Buick

bumped across the ‘aopu field. I hid

in Halberg’s Barn. A bashed Toyota truck

behind the Buick. Jeez. They stopped. The sun

burned through a scarf of mist. I got my gun.

They both got out. The dogs cringed down. I snuck

towards the hop-shed. Sssh ! They waved their arms.

The tall one took two steps – and something popped.

The fat one hunched and fell. The tall one dropped.

The echo thumped across the misty farms.

 

The police said, did I know them ? I said, No.

They zipped them up. The fog turned into snow.

 

The interview with John Gallas will appear in the next issue of the Wellington literary journal Sport.

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