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“All families must have their own ways of keeping the peace”: Charlotte Grimshaw on her father CK Stead

We cross live to Matahiwi marae in Hawkes Bay, where Charlotte Grimshaw reports from a ceremony to honour the new poet laureate – her father, Karl Stead.

The Poet Laureate had been summoned to a weekend at Matahiwi Marae in the Hawkes Bay, for a ceremony to honour his appointment. He was invited to bring an entourage: not only a troupe of support poets, but his whole whānau.

The whānau gathered to talk about it. We all share a tendency to be shy, to wince at the prospect of public events, also the strong inclination to find everything funny. My sister Margaret suggested the Laureate hire a stunt family for the proceedings. The Laureate thought perhaps he could employ a stunt poet too, and we could all go off and do something else. I saw the weekend forming itself into a story: the poet, invited to a literary event, finds himself embarking on a trip with his entire extended family in tow.  A Laureate saddled with whānau. What might happen when this large, hypersensitive and complex group took a journey together? There was such potential for tragedy and comedy, it had the ingredients of a French movie. All we had to do was get on the road, and the screenplay would write itself.

With surprisingly minimal resistance, the Laureate had allowed Margaret to drive his car. Also in the car were Kay, and Margaret’s children. We set off in convoy. On the road, the Laureate operated the aircon briskly, and commented on Margaret’s gear changes. Then he told them a true story about Ingmar Bergman. The great Swedish filmmaker’s family, the Laureate said, had decided they would throw a large and lavish birthday party for him. When this was put to Bergman, he said he would only allow it to happen if he could have a small room reserved next to the party, where he would spend the evening by himself.

That night in Havelock North, we looked for a restaurant with a table large enough to accommodate our number: CK and Kay, three children, spouses, our son Conrad’s girlfriend, six grandchildren aged from 10 to 26. It was a lively, jolly group, with a lot of jokes, the cousins enjoying each other’s company. Only one was missing, our twenty-year-old daughter Madeleine, who is spending a gap year overseas. Each time I looked around the table I missed her, felt her absence. I am writing a novel about women: lost daughters, lost mothers.

CK and I sat together and talked about Ingmar Bergman. “Conflicting impulses,” I said, gesturing around the table. “Such a big family, along with the desire to get away.”  

The motel rooms were large suites, consisting of two bedrooms each. Our son Leo’s room was at the end of the block. Forgetting, as I often do, that he’s not six years old, I told him, “You can stay in ours if it seems lonely.” He replied genially, “Are you mad?” The next day he reported he’d sat up late, luxuriously texting, on Viber/Snapchat/Instagram/Facebook, while watching a gruesome horror movie.  

On Saturday morning, the light was autumnal, the sky high and pale, with a swipe of thin clouds like a claw mark in the east. Out on the road beyond the motel, Ingmar Stead could be seen, fast-walking into the distance.  Margaret said, “He announced he was off, and wouldn’t be back.”

We waited. The mood was cheerful, benign. The family, beginning to assemble, milling about the cars, was an impressive group, most of the grandchildren startlingly tall. We were a picture of unity, held together by our own unique blend of goodwill, love – and unspoken family rules.

Family rules. In my giant motel room, I’d been re-reading Volume Five of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Savage family truths were the new black – I’d been finding that aspect of Knausgaard’s saga exhilarating. All families must have their own ways of keeping the peace. I thought about the rules in my whānau of origin, the way some things were deemed unsayable: nothing too terrible, no really ghastly skeletons, just small truths and pathologies that were firmly shut down in the interests of harmony if one tried to discuss them. But did in the interests of harmony really mean in the interests of soothing someone’s ego? I used to respect the no-go areas, like a loyal party member. These days, I felt like going there. Talking is important, especially if it helps people. Not talking is destructive, if it denies need. And who decided what we could and couldn’t talk about, when it came to our very own lives?

The Matahiwi Marae is a place of beauty, hidden from the main road down a long narrow drive, amid orchards and vineyards. It’s close to the Te Mata Estate, whose owner, John Buck, founded the New Zealand Poet Laureate award. Talking is important – on the marae talking is crucial, as is ceremony: the dramatic ritual of formal welcome, the cautious advance in formation, the proper reception, the exchanges of honour and respect. Māori culture formalises and codifies human interactions with such large gestures, with such a powerful sense of theatre. It is a culture of complex manners. We processed onto the marae in our group: the Laureate, his whanau, poets Paula Green, Chris Price and Greg O’Brien, the staff of the National Library, led by Peter Ireland, who administer the award, members of the marae community.  We were welcomed by kaumatua Tom Mulligan, and the formal ceremonies began.

Talking is good. The speeches, in Māori and English, were measured, whole-hearted, graceful, they welcomed and soothed, they were strong, they were moving.  At a given moment we lined up and shook hands and hongied. The whānau, seated next to the Laureate on the paepae, felt the full beauty of the experience. The marae took its time; it slowed and steadied its jittery and fractious Pakeha guests. Full tribute was given on both sides, and protocol observed. We knew the waiata we sang in response, because we’d learned them at school, and they were imprinted on our minds. There was satisfaction and rightness in all of this. It felt good to be part of the big whānau, the tribe called New Zealander.  

A Hawkes Bay resident had said to me, ‘Ever seen a green marae?” The carvings on the Matahiwi Marae are painted not in the usual red, but in green. I asked why, and was told that Māori carvings have often been painted red in the past to preserve them, but that the red paint is only an approximation of ancient staining. In fact, you can paint a Māori carving any colour you want. The local carver fancied green; green paint was available. So why not? On the roof of the wharenui, a green carved figure of Maui stood pulling on the rope that would fish up the North Island. Above him the clouds had formed themselves into silvery scales. Thunderstorms and showers had been forecast for the whole weekend. But it was clear and hot, and there was no rain.

The Laureate was presented with his beautiful tokotoko, the ornate stick carved by local artist Jacob Scott.  A kuia read from “Scoria”, and then CK spoke, referring to “Scoria,” his long poem about Auckland. He talked about place, about growing up between the three maunga, Maungawhau, Maungakiekie and Owairaka, whose names form an ominous, beautiful refrain throughout “Scoria.” He said, “I regard myself as a poet before everything else. Poetry comes first.”

Later that night, there was a public poetry reading at the Function Centre in the town. The Laureate read an early poem, “Pictures in a Gallery Undersea.”  I heard TS Eliot in it. It was unmistakably a homage to ‘The Wasteland.” But when he read from “Scoria”, there wasn’t anything like it, nothing else I’ve heard combines wildness with iron control in such a strange, striking and powerful way. “Quesada” is another poem in which you can hear and feel this extraordinary duality. Conflicting impulses. The Poet Laureate is his poems: he is the iron control freak, he is the orderly patriarch, he is the figure out on the road beyond the motel, fast-walking away forever, into the autumn haze.

The MC, poet Marty Smith, tapped the mike and announced: “A Ford Focus has been left in the car park with its lights on.” Margaret rose, with whispered musical excuse mes. When the Laureate got up to read again he said, saltily, “By the way, the Ford Focus is mine. My daughter insisted on driving me down here, but she can’t even turn off the lights.”   

Hilarity is a problem among the ranks of the Laureate’s whānau. He has his deserved reputation as “formidable” and “ferocious”, and yet Kay has often complained, “He makes so many jokes in bed I get hysterics, and then I can’t sleep.” During one phase of the town poetry reading, when the Laureate had sat down at the poets’ table and other poets were performing, one of the funniest grandchildren made a quiet remark which was then, through a series of unfortunate coincidences, echoed and magnified, setting off two other grandchildren, who were soon so convulsed they began to infect even their elders, until, at one brief point, the whole table of wretched whānau were witnessed with their shoulders shaking and their red faces hidden in their hands. Afterwards we bowed our heads and silently blamed the most comedic grandchild, and our Irish ancestry, and the strain of spending all day on best behaviour. And the terrible power of words. Words have always been our undoing, and the undoing of our children. Over at the poets’ table, the Laureate remained opaque. He may or may not have turned a blind eye.  

The next day we were back at Matahiwi for the breakfast and poroporoaki. Everyone showed up. We loved the marae; we couldn’t stay away. Kaumātua Tom Mulligan referred to the large size of the Laureate’s whānau, and the fact that some (Margaret and her children) had come all the way from London for the event. He felt that this showed respect, and we were pleased in turn. After breakfast, we were encouraged to share our experiences. The brave piped up; the shy squirmed in their seats. Chris Price sang a song and read a poem. There was a sense of mutual goodwill, of happiness. Time moved slowly. The sun shone on a bright mural of sea creatures: stingrays and crabs. A baby with a remarkably intelligent face received a breastfeed, bounced on its mother’s lap, made some comments and jokes, then crashed off to sleep. During a long dreamy pause, I asked Jacob Scott, who had carved the Laureate’s tokotoko, about earthquakes. He turned out to be an enthusiast. He showed me a special Geonet App on his phone that measured seismic activity.

“Here’s the minor quakes we’ve had just today,” he said. “Around here, the earth is alive.”      


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