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Interview: Gregory O'Brien talks about Always Song in the Water

Interview by Marcus Hobson.

Gregory O’Brien’s latest book, Always Song in the Water, is published recently by Auckland University Press. It brings together and showcases a host of his skills; poet, painter, biographer and observer, as well as more subtle ones such as friend and collaborator. There are so many things to love about the book, a whole lot of stories to enjoy and pass on. I got a chance to ask Greg a few questions.

Greg, you have a whole host of skills, as poet, painter, biographer and story teller. I’d love to know more about how these all work together.

I’ve always been drawn to overlapping/interacting modes of art-making: William Blake’s melding of poetry and graphic art; John Cage’s music, writing and visual art; Colin McCahon’s grand, wordy project…Ralph Hotere’s work with Bill Manhire… These artists were the role models I chose for myself early on. I’ve always thought of art as a conversation rather than a monologue. I have an associative mind—connections are always being made without my having to do anything consciously. It was once put to me that my work was ‘the byproduct of a disorderly mind’. I think this is an accurate and affirming summation.

Do you approach a project and just know that it is a poem or a painting?

Usually a poem begins with a phrase or an image—then other materials gather around. I keep a journal in which both verbal and visual materials are gathered, untidily, in a state of flux. From there, elements are extracted. Usually the sound of words—a certain harmony or tension—leads me in the direction of a completed poem. In a painting, the formal relationships between forms, colour and tone take control… In that regard painting and poetry are essentially different—although, as you can see in ‘Always song in the water’, I also mix up these elements at times.

Or does one grow out of the other?

I think of my visual/verbal progress as more of a tandem development rather than a case of either art-form growing out of or leaning upon the other.

How do you describe yourself? Is there one creative channel that comes first, or do they all vie for attention?

Years ago I was interviewed for a Canadian radio station and the interviewer described me as ‘a poet, roustabout and tourist’. I’ve always liked (and been amused by) that description. It feels about right. Another time I was described as a ‘cultural odd-jobs-man’. I also embrace that designation.

Poetry has always been my launching pad, my point of origin, my bottom-line. I think everything I do—beit writing-about-art, printmaking, painting, non-fiction—is an extension of that.

As I recall, it was Baudelaire who referred to the ‘poetic’ as the transformative, radiant quality at the heart of all the arts.

Do you observe the world in different ways? For example, is the way that you view things as an artist different to the way you look at things as a poet?

All of my work is born out of a state of high spirits, fervor, and an over-riding belief in the act of making (alongside that, however, I often experience great uncertainty regarding the final result). I’m an optimist and a positivist (a difficult position to maintain with any degree of intelligence and responsiveness in these turbulent times). Despite much evidence to the contrary, the world, as it strikes me, is a constant amazement.

Northland and, beyond there, the wider South Pacific region offer epiphanies, moments of insight and exaltation, as well as darker layers of meaning. ‘Always song in the water’ is, more than any of my other books, an accurate barometer of the world as I inhabit it.

I love the way that you are able to bring your many talents to the same exercise, a painting or a drawing that will sit alongside a poem. Do things happen in an order, do the words come first and then an illustration to sit alongside them, or is it more random?

I think I came to non-fiction writing by way of working as an illustrator. Illustrating a text is, first and foremost, a measured response, a meditation, and then an interpretation or revisitation; it is a selective process, a sifting through of what is valuable/viable in a text. One of the first illustrative jobs I did, back in the 1980s, was for New Outlook magazine. They asked me to provide a suite of drawings for a chapter from a book that Michael King was then working on—Being Pakeha. So I had to read the text and then come up with a response. When, a few years later, I started writing literary and art reviews and essays, those endeavours struck me as a very similar process: a clearing of the head, firstly, and then the finding of a set of parameters, a tone, a language and something to usefully, honestly and interestingly place alongside the originating material.

As a writer or an artist we are often trying to capture the essence of something. Do you feel that your paintings capture things more successfully than your written words?

My writing feels a little more solid than my painting – probably on account of the fact I am self-taught as a painter. I fumble my way forwards in that difficult medium. Over the past decade I’ve made many etchings (editioned at Cicada Press in Sydney). Printmaking has been a revelation and a huge thrill. I think of printmaking as being very close to a half-way point between painting and publishing books…. It involves paper, the printed sheet, it is a means of publication… Words and images seem to go well together here.

In a perfect world of writing and publishing, would you always want to include your own artwork in your books, or do you like to see how others portray your ideas?

I like to work in as many ways as possible. I’ve illustrated books by others (C. K. Stead, Kate de Goldi, Elizabeth Smither and others) —but it is an equally great delight for me to have Noel McKenna illustrate my words in Always song in the water.

As a painter/poet, I have found a kindred spirit in John Pule. Making work in collaboration with him, we find ourselves constantly swapping roles. I provide the words sometimes; he at other times. He starts the process, then I jump in. Or the other way around….

Half of your latest book is about a journey to Raoul Island, which took place eight years ago now. I assume that the memories of that journey are still very strong.

I’ve been lucky to have had some really powerful, galvanizing, watershed experiences in my life: Living in Dargaville 1978-80, the ‘Hotere—out the black window’ book and exhibition in 1996, the Parihaka exhibition and book project 1999-2001….writing books on Hanly, Graham Percy and Euan Macleod.. What great learning experiences these were. And, of course, the ‘Kermadec’ experience remains a huge part of my life. The initial journey was just the beginning of things. There were subsequent travels all across the Pacific from New Caledonia to Chile. There were many exhibitions of work (curated by me, and/or including my artwork). There were plenty of poems too—these were collected in my two AUP books, Beauties of the octagonal pool (2012) and Whale Years (2015). As I mention in Always Song in the Water, it is as if the Kermadec voyage never concluded--we never got off that ship. We’re still out there on the high seas—not just me but all of the artists involved in the project—making work that speaks to that experience, to that reality, and also to the urgent environmental issues that it raised.

Was there a particular reason for that eight year gap?

Since the voyage in 2011 I have written hundreds of thousands of words about the Kermadec experience, the art produced, the ongoing discussion. I’ve written for all manner of publications—from PN Review in the UK to Navy Today, from the Sunday Star Times to the Journal of New Zealand Literature and Art News. So there hasn’t really been a ‘gap’. The last few years have been chocker with my writings about the experience.

‘Always song in the water’ is the most personal and considered of my many responses to the voyage (and subsequent voyages). It doesn’t tell the whole story of the project and its outcomes. I very much hope, in due course, someone else will write that book—from the outside, looking in. I am still very much inside the project, the whale, and singing a song rather than trying to write it down as history.

Does the group of artists, writers and broadcasters who went to Raoul still keep in touch?

We all became bonded—for sure--and, through subsequent travels and a great many group exhibitions, our paths were inextricably interwoven. The shared experience is something that will keep us in each other’s company for the rest of our days, I have no doubt about that.

One of the other things that struck me from your latest book, was a broad connection to literature and writers. I recall letters and meetings with Janet Frame and a brief encounter of Gerald Murnane. I love these little stories and what they tell us about out literary heroes. Do you have more of these little vignettes and do they keep on happening?

I think my great talent, if I have one, is my ability to ‘fall in with a good crowd’. When I was in my twenties, I was lucky enough to work (with photographer Robert Cross) on a book about NZ writers, Moments of Invention. I travelled the country, meeting people like Janet Frame, Hone Tuwhare, Ian Wedde, Keri Hulme…. That was my education—not only as a reader but as a person. Some years later I travelled the country meeting visual artists (for the 1996 book Lands and Deeds). I’ve spend a huge amount of my life in the company of artists, poets, musicians. As well as responding to their work, I have travelled the world in their company. How lucky can you be. And, of course, this is all part of a continuum that I am caught up in.

What is your next project?

I’ve co-edited a book about the painter Melvin Day, which VUP is releasing at the end of this year. I’m planning to spend 2020 working on a monograph about Don Binney (for AUP). I have plenty of paintings to be getting on with—and I will also be putting together a Selected Poems, which Carcanet in the UK has committed to publishing the year after next.


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