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Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975 Comment and Context

Ed. Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond, Michele Leggott.
Auckland UP, 2000



Dennis List, Adelaide

Letter to ML, 6 January 2000:

Your mention of Plastic brought back some ancient memories. It was published September 1970, by the Canterbury University Literary Society. I was doing honours in psychology at the time, having moved to Christchurch from Wellington early that year – Canterbury had a better reputation and a wider choice of subjects. It was edited by Peter Grimbeek and his partner Kathy Healam. (I wonder what became of them?) I had a strange visual ‘play’ in it.

A group of us, in the CU Lit. Soc took a railcar to Arthur's Pass one weekend in August, to see what snow was like. This group included Peter Grimbeek, Kathy Healam, David Young, and Robert Simpson – all contributors to this (I think, only) issue of Plastic. I seem to remember we discussed it while sliding down a snow-covered hill on a plastic tablecloth. We were returning from the university ski club, much higher up the mountain. A snowstorm seemed to be looming, and we were in a hurry to get back down to the cabin we were renting. Part way down, we saw a grin looming up through the snowy sky. It turned out to be a mad Scotsman, in a kilt, heading up to the ski hut, seemingly unaware of a perilous cliff nearby. I wonder if he survived.

Such was the birth of Plastic. Yes, I have a copy – part of a heap of 60s and 70s small magazines I've carted everywhere over the years – including a complete set of the early issues of Argot. One day (I thought) they'll be rare and valuable. Perhaps.

I'll happily send you a photocopy, though it may not come out too well – the printing quality isn't high, and Plastic was printed on multicoloured paper. If you like, I can send you a complete list of all my 60s and 70s small magazines. Did you know about Frogs Legs – a 1966 Wellington magazine which I edited, wrote in (under various names) typed up, and did all the artwork for.

It's good to hear that Big Smoke is being published at last. I didn't see the sun rise for the millennium – there seemed no point in it. I've recently adopted the Ethiopian calendar, in which it's still 1992, and there are 13 months in the year (which begins in mid-September) and the day starts at 6 a.m. instead of midnight, and times have names instead of numbers. Much more interesting than boring old MM.

Poem for launch of Big Smoke in Auckland, 21 July 2000


Don’t go down to the dump, my dears.
Never go near the dump.
One of these gruesome days, I fear
the lot will go up with a whump  

Mlabme kids
play down at the dump.
Too many words at school.
They fool around
in the mountains of junk
but words are here as well.  

Newspapers, packets, labels from jars
graffitinous comments at night.
Heated words stir in red-hot pools
but anger is slow to ignite.  

Rubbing their pencils together
they laugh
in a wanton, childish way
frantically frotting their sticks
warming their hands at
a squiggle of heat.
Toying with fire
somebody finds a match.  

It smoulders. It smokes.
A flame leaps out.
A kumara packet sparks.
The chips are smoking steadily now
Insidious glow after dark.  

Smoke envelops Mlabme town.
Those kids have been at it again.
The truants have fled
while authorities read
and words were written in vain.  

This is the way.
Yay! That’s the way.
No, this is the way
we burn.  

Franklin, alert on his mountain top
observing the district below.
Smoke at Mlabme again, he sees.
He digs something out of the snow.  

Franklin disgorges his map of the sky
shimmering pockets of blue.
The wind takes them west
reflecting the mist
unfurling the world as they go.  

Verbal smoke will never cease.
The earth itself’s on fire.
The sky’s all black with burnt-out words
and loose umbrella wire.  

Every time I wash my sheets
My name is Nancy Browne
The urchins burn the words again
Debris comes tumbling down  

Each kid grabs a corner
of Mrs Browne’s sheets.
They dance around
faces upturned in glee
words dropping into their eyes  

In devilment, they flick the sheets.
Words fly up, jumble, rearrange.
As Nancy arrives with her stick
Those words recline on the sheet
the slightest glimmer of sense.  

Truants don't read too well
but they recognize junk
when they see it.  

‘Ancient poems’
says the oldest one.
‘Yuk. Let's burn it again.’


Vanya Lowry
, Auckland

Letter to ML 13 September 2000:

Thank you so much for copy of the Elam booklet – I’ve marked off my bits – they don’t look too bad either – should’ve been a poet! Hope Big Smoke’s selling well; it should . . . Also (on reverse) is an enlarged bio-thing, if any use for your net biz. Plus you can run the poems!?    



BORN Auckland 15.8.43, third daughter of Irene and Bob Lowry.

MOTHER of George Port Oliver and Amber McWilliams.

WORKED as freelance journalist & reviewer, waitress, fruitpicker, Editorial Artist Auckland Star, Art Editor School Publications Branch, bindery-hand at several presses including father's Pilgrim Press.


‘The Curiously Fresh Show’, Bay Art Gallery, Auckland, 1981. ‘The Curiously Fresh Show No.2’, Outreach Gallery, Auckland, 1982. ‘33 Shopping Lists’, Rotorua Art Gallery & Museum, 1982. ‘Wild Things’, Whitecliffe Galleries, Auckland, 1983. ‘One More Cup of Coffee’, Expresso Love Cafe, Ponsonby, 1983. ‘Angels & Devils’, informal portrait photography, Outreach, 1983. *

GROUP SHOWS. Denis Cohn Gallery, Auckland Public Library, Auckland Society of Arts, Auckland Museum, Whitecliffe Galleries, Real Pictures, Rotorua Art Gallery, Gallery Pacific, Outreach Gallery, & the V.A.A.N.A (Visual Artists Against Nuclear Arms) Peace Mural on K Road, Auckland (‘No Nukes is Good Nukes’).

HAS ILLUSTRATED more than twenty books.

CONTRIBUTED photographs & drawings to many magazines.

STORIES published in NZ Listener, More, Broadsheet, School Journal, Argot, Cue, Playdate, Thursday, Kiwi.

POEMS in Landfall, School Journal, Listener, Metro, Auckland Star, Broadsheet, 1963 Elam Students' Book (Ed. W.R. Allen), Kiwi, Manuka.

SELF-PUBLISHED (& printed with help of tutor Robin Lush) slim volume SIX POEMS in 1964, reprinted following year.

PLEASED for poetic fragments to be first anthologised in BIG SMOKE.

PRESENTLY working on memoirs. (Star tip for Leos: Focus on quality rather than quantity. ‘The bigger the better’ is often your motto but sometimes the motto ‘less is more’ works just as well!)

Vanya Lowry, from A collection of prose and poetry from students at the Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland, ed. WR Allen (1963).


This morning I saw
a fat thrush

crooked into a persimmon branch

and the persimmons

were bright

                    and fleshy and smooth and

round and orange

this morning.

                    Well, so I thought

I would like to paint them

round like that and sweet

and the dark comfortable thrush

(but it would be easier

to take a colour photograph) because

a painting would make them look different and

not like lumps of orange clay and

they wouldn’t make you hungry if
I painted them would they?  

Because I have no faith in my paintings
because they never say what they are meant
because today all I want to do is die
because I have no faith in myself  

and my paintings do not jump out at you and sing
‘look I have come through’ someone said but no
look I have not come through at all but rather
where have I gone.  

Only one thing consoles me
that is
I saw the thrush in the persimmon tree
this morning.

down falls a ginger sun
goldenpecked from the dark trees
by tongues of birds that sing  

lazy gold here pattern
where we lie and I see the shape
of kisses gnawing at your eyes  

down fall sadflower hands
curling up to clutch to feel for
the sun the earth the endless moment.  

here as sun falls
You and I fall; hands quiver with
swift fall of bodies becoming one  


A cripple never wears out a pair of shoes
A starving beggar never gets fat
A blind man never sees another’s miseries
A dead bird never sings  

So run then cripple I’ll give my legs
eat then hungry man I’ll give you my bread
see then blind man I’ll give you my eyes
and sing for me bird before you are dead.


Yes of course
I knew you were going
for all at once the cricket's song
into a rust-red silence
as your rainfilled roses.
whatever was I thinking of
                                          imagining my
was quicker than others? yes I
should have remembered
even the ecstasy

moths are happy
when birds sing.  
browned dried-crackled oak leaf
and a muddied wet shoe
crunched on it.
So a spider came
and made a nest onto it.  

I see too a glad disorder of furniture I see
chairs with bent legs looking peaceful because
they are-not arranged in rows like schoolchildren
in a dead classroom.  

I see
that I do not need
to go under the table
                                to write
or outside to see the things there are
I know these things I remember them
and I know that pictures
                                           words and words
                                                                                  are pictures.  

And I see on the walls, pictures, and some
I like and some I don't like and I like
the ones that are simple and say plainly
look! I am simple! I am talking to you because
I do not try to be more than I am and I
do not confuse you with irrelevant lines filled
in to make a shape fit a page when the simple
lines and the simple spaces say more.  

Today I feel much sadder, I felt
extraordinarily happy yesterday but
does that make sense when nothing has
changed since yesterday and least of
all myself.  

Sad day outside
twisted up
in branches of wet oak
coldly flapping.


In the corridor someone (who?) sings of
summertime, tunelessly, and here in this room
where opaque light falls from behind me
the tune drums in my head, slowly, and I wait.
for words to spill out
                                  the table presses into
my ribs and hurts and pencils whisper and are
silent and whisper soft and loud and white
curtains hang in, yes in transparent
texture warm and creamy over cold windows and
a bent nail lies on
                            the floor
and the bent nail is half black and half silver
a reflection of the hidden sun.

Dead leaves
on a stained ginger table
                                      dead leaves
warped and
spare and juiceless
                           dead leaves
white crumpled paper
                                  ripped and textured
                                                                  with faint shadows
and behind my right shoulder
                                              a girl . .


Why at this moment do I remember
some-one who went away and is never coming
back.    Why should the thought of him upset
me when he is never coming back and I know
I will never see him again
                                       and if I know what
he is and is not why do I care.    

One girl was killing
                             ants on
                             the warm concrete
with a pencil and I said
                             what if God does that to you?
and later
            a moth came and
                   on my finger.  

            was gold even when the sun was not on it
and the moth's feelers were as long as its wings
and its legs were tiny threads of black and
gold bands and
                         it sat for five minutes on my finger.



John Macnamara, Onehunga

Letter to ML and ME, 2 September 1999:

Some time ago (shortly after you came to see me) I started to write a letter to you including my selections for your proposed anthology. As usual with my attempts at correspondence/communication, it started to get out of hand & threatened to end up at least ½ the size of War & Peace. My tangents tend to breed subtangents, & so it goes on. . . . I decided to put that aside as I seemed to have lost the original point in writing & was becoming rapidly surrounded if not totally immersed in a wild literary discourse with brief lunch-breaks of post-pataphysical theology peppered with seamy excerpts from my mis-spent past & possibly from a mis-spent & mis-spelt future. So, I've put it aside & will return to it occasionally as a diversion when I'm feeling in the mood & am particularly full of phlegm or philosophy.

So this is only a short letter, banged out on my new, I966, ‘Olympia Splendid’ purchased for 3 dollars at the local mission shop. That 3 dollars hurt, I had to make a rapid decision between the need to write & the real importance of a pound of butter, 1. 89 at Foodtown & a loaf of dead white bread, one dollar at the Korean bakery. The typewriter won. I hope I don’t live to regret the decision.

Ok, could you let me know about your progress with the anthology. Did you manage to get the funding you needed, or is everything stalled. Personally, I'd be disappointed if you have been thwarted by the cash for creation crowd . . . for myself (a bit), for yourselves, & for others . . . Just let me know about it.

In passing. Mary's sister Jenny has taken over a shop called ‘Art Defined’ in the shopping centre, Jervois Rd., Herne Bay; where she flogs off works of ‘art’ ( small ‘a’) etc. I have a lot of drawings, collages, prints, etc over there . . . it’s all small work, but hopefully it will provide me with some sort of pittance with which to supplement my continual penury. If you are feeling rich, or even generous, go and buy something. I've kept (at this stage) what I consider my best work at home, for nostalgic and other reasons. The work in the shop is, however, not too bad, & it’s cheap enough. If you want anything, tell Jennifer I said you could have a generous discount . . . she’ll probably be glad to get rid of it. The only major (for me) thing over there is a large collage I did in 1979 [‘The Massive Problem of Re-Entry’] that was originally exhibited at a Sydney gallery in conjunction with the publication of The Savages. I think she's whacked a weighty price on that, but the other work is inexpensive. I mention this as any possible sale I can make will enable me to . . . well, buy another tube of paint (I'm struggling with that stuff), a typewriter ribbon, paper (I might be able to finish that goddamn letter) not to mention the bread & butter. Maybe I'll drop dead tomorrow . . . you'd have something to remember me by. You could leave something to your grandchildren.

Apart from that, Life continues. At least that’s the impression I have. I've been on a crash course of reading NZ prose & poetry post-1945 for a month or two. The local library seems to throw out a few reasonable works from time to time at 3 for a dollar. I've managed to collect a few early Frames, some Weddes, Mike Johnsons, a W. Ihimaera, Mark Williams on recent (1990) novels (Leaving the Highway), Talking About Ourselves (Ricketts) (you're in that one, Murray) etc etc. Also acquired, by adroit exchange of price tags at a London Book Shop sale, a copy of the Maurice Duggan biography (Richards) for 2. 95. So much for another pound of butter. Good biography, all up, but I feel Richards may be a bit of a dry, if not totally dead fish. It's all been very interesting. I've got a lot of NZ writing to catch up on, though I feel it may not be doing my spleen much good. By the way, it occurred to me recently (maybe during the Duggan) that I may be one, if not the only NZ ‘writer’ who is also a ‘reader’ who has never read a copy of Landfall. Good God!

Hope to hear from you soon. My hours of ‘work’ (that is when I am able to converse in any sort of approximation of the human language & am sufficiently clad) are, as before, approx. 2 pm - 4 am. 'Open 7 Days'. If you don’t buy something from me from the art shop you'll never darken my memoirs. (I'm giving that serious thought . . . I need a good laugh, & now I have that dangerous article the Olympia Splendid with which to construct my torture chambers, vats of vitriol, fields of daisies, etc.) . . . Better still, come over, I'll probably give you something ... everybody else has been.




Bill Manhire, Wellington

Letter to ML, 15 January 1998:

Best thing re Amphedesma in the meantime is to look in that anthology of interviews IN THE SAME ROOM. I think I ramble on about Amphedesma there in ways that answer a few of your questions. And after that it will be clear what the questions that actually need to be answered are. I hadn't realised the obvious symmetry till I saw your list – but our first publication (setting MALADY aside) was Ian's HOMAGE TO MATISSE, while the last was EARTHLY.  


Rachel McAlpine, Wellington

Letter to ML, 5 December 2000:

What a phenomenal web page that is! Tortured myself by skimming down it and flicking back a few decades. Great idea to link it to  ‘Bad Times’  finish-my-poem-please. Go ahead. (Asking if it's OK to link to my website is a bit like asking a poet to sign her book: oooo, that's a toughie.)  By the way the book is delicious. I kind of laugh every time I look at it. Time warp – no nostalgia, no regrets, just ‘gosh’. As a matter of fact I was a respectable conventional Masterton housewife during that era... though I do remember waving an anti apartheid banner outside the Rotary barbecue where my husband was eating with the enemy, and I should have been too. And so forth.

Heather McPherson, Hamilton.

Introduction to reading for Big Smoke, 21 July 2000:

When I look at this poem
I think of Virginia Woolf
quoting a love poem by Christina Rossetti
and saying it couldn't be done

‘How can I tell you love’ is from a former age, not just because of its politically insensitive concepts nor that I wrote in a context – as the penultimate line says – of fear – and not only because the woman to whom I was writing a love poem was married. I had felt the flickers of Women's Liberation but hadn't yet come out as a woman much less a lesbian poet – & both as woman poet & lesbian lover I felt very isolated. At the 1973 Christchurch Arts Festival I watched something like twenty young men get up on stage & read their poems, all more or less indistinguishable except the one as I've said elsewhere who ‘was a bit mad too’. Where are the young women, I wondered – and that was the gestation of Spiral.

One gift of Women's Lib & the Women's Art Movement was to unearth an audience for the voices of women who may otherwise have been silenced. For those of us already writing, another gift was to open the content – to push boundaries on subject matter deemed proper to women writers. Like love poems – acceptable if to men, still more acceptable if the women personae/narrators are broken-hearted (rather than a disappointed heroine a la Aphra Behn).

You see the same syndrome today in prize-winning stories. A 1999 lesbian anthology (Eat These Sweet Words) includes a number of fine poets in their thirties and forties who haven't yet published books. Because of lingering stereotypes about poetry, its content, its writers – their political positions? Because of what constitutes mainstream acceptability? An important aim of the Women's Art Movement was to democratise art – we are all artists, we said. A bit soon? Maybe the Internet will help. And maybe also this anthology with its inclusiveness towards poets who wrote against the mainstream.


Letter to ML, ME, AB and EC, 25 July 2000:

Looking back through notes about the Big Smoke anthology I'm admiring of your tenacity, stamina and commitment in bringing it to a successful outcome. With some knowledge of publishing I'm aware of the thousand small details that go towards a successful publication. It's a handsome well-produced book and a wonderful resource for literary historians and students, including the youngsters who read at the lunchtime function, and a moving gift to those of us included. I congratulate you all on the hard work and caring organisation that brought it about – and with which it was launched. While it was a pity that many writers couldn't be present, among those who could be, I felt an excitement in the atmosphere and a kind of diversity easy to be part of. Thank you for the book and the experience. I was glad to be a part of it – and enjoyed the music too.


Letter to ML, 23 August 2000:

Re my Chch Festival prize-winning poem, consisting of about 10 poem-segments of different styles; one piece was printed in Landfall '73 or '74 (as usual one thinks the selector chose the worst segment). An American women's poetry magazine printed a number of parts - 4(?). The complete work is around somewhere . . .



Last updated 21 March, 2004