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Interview: Gregory O'Brien talks about House & Contents


Gregory O’Brien is an independent writer, painter and art curator. He has written many books of poetry, fiction, essays and commentary. Gregory O’Brien became an Arts Foundation Laureate and won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2012, and in 2017 became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington. Gregory talks to NZ Booklovers.



Tell us a little about House & Contents.

It's a collection of paintings and poems spanning the past decade. As the title implies, the book explores notions of 'home' and processes of building up and falling down... Not surprisingly, various kinds of architecture are evoked in both word and visual image. Houses are the structures we create in which to contain our lives, loves, emotions. And memory plays an important part here too. Both poems and paintings chart the passing of time. The book contains elegies in memory of my late parents and others. The paintings also fill a memorial function--they chart places I have been, houses I have lived in or visited. I think of the book itself as a kind of architectural structure, with lots of little rooms made of words, forms and colours, all of them linked up, leading to and from one another.


What inspired you to produce this book?

I wanted to bring my paintings and poems together and Auckland University Press graciously came to the party, producing a gorgeous book (magnificently designed by Keely O'Shannessy). For many years, there have been conversations going on between my paintings and my poems--a book like this seemed the perfect vessel or vehicle in which to bring them together. The collection also contains a series of short prose meditations on earthquakes, reflections on the instability of human life and habitation. We build structures--'houses'--into which we place the 'contents'--our lives as well as our belongings. But nothing can be taken for granted. We live in hazardous times. No one needs to be reminded of that.


What was your routine or process when creating this book?

The book represents days, weeks and months both in the painting studio and at the writing desk. The 'routine', if such a thing exists, is to keep the projects moving all the time. Working most days. I'm a slow writer... and an even slower painter--so the book represents a good decade's graft. But I'm not complaining.


What research was involved?

Every day is a 'research project'. The book charts travels around Aotearoa/New Zealand and as far offshore as Santiago de Chile. There are a number of poems and paintings emanating from the year my wife Jenny Bornholdt and I spent living in Alexandra, Central Otago, where we held the Henderson Trust Arts Residency in 2018. That experience was a total revelation and changed the shape of Aotearoa/New Zealand in my mind. I keep a journal/daybook, both at home and when travelling, which you could describe as a 'research' document, charting things seen, words overheard, events, effects, moments of insight...

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

As a general background, I imagine a constant soundtrack of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers, Cyrillus Kreek's 'The Suspended Harp of Babel', John Blow's 'An ode on the death of Henry Purcell' and Glenn Gould's eternal Bach. Closer to home and closer to the action of the poems in particular, I imagine musical interpolations by Tiny Ruins, Steve Abel and Nadia Reid, with interludes from David Long's newest release 'Ash and Bone' and Plan 9's 'The Bewilderness'.

What did you enjoy the most about writing House & Contents?

Painting has always been, for me, a more relaxed and overtly pleasurable pursuit than writing poetry. I've loved the hours in the studio (listening to the music mentioned above, often). There is a pure joy in making paintings. You can bask in colour and texture. It's another world. Closer to music perhaps. But then, of course, poetry has its own kind of music as well...


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

The book is part of a continuum. To celebrate finishing it, I simply kept on writing and painting. Onwards, joyfully.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Sporting one of the best titles ever, Take us the little foxes, by the British doctor-poet Miles Burrows raised both my spirit and my consciousness. He's magnificent! A month into 2022, I've just read Nick Bollinger's very snappy, yet soulful, account of the musical life, Goneville, and a brilliant, ebullient, truly remarkable collection of poems by the young Wellingtonian Frances Samuels titled Museum.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I recently finished writing a large-scale monograph on the painter Don Binney (a five-year project, to date) and I'll be busy seeing it through pre-production over the next few months. The book, Don Binney--Flight Path will be published next summer by Auckland University Press. I also have an exhibition of paintings, 'Local Knowledge', made in collaboration with the Sydney-based artist Euan Macleod currently on show at the Invercargill Art Gallery (until late March) and a solo show of my own paintings, 'There, About', opening at the Bowen Galleries in Wellington on April 4.


Auckland University Press