Home is where the typewriter is

Peter Bland’s Collected Poems 1956-2011 is  "almost an autobiography".
Peter Bland’s Collected Poems 1956-2011 is "almost an autobiography".

"But why Peter, why?" you want to say. England is a hole. Bad weather, terrible food, grumpy people, rampant street violence, grey granite and rain, and the sun a stranger. Why on earth didn't you just stay in New Zealand and have done with it?

"You're quite right," says Peter Bland from his home near Mt Eden, in Auckland, "but it's taken me a lifetime to make my mind up about where I want to be.

"I'm a New Zealand poet, because I started writing here when I was 20, using the local vernacular, but then my English childhood always kept drawing me back over there."

Peter Bland, Collected Poems 1956-2011, Steele Roberts, $44.99.
Peter Bland, Collected Poems 1956-2011, Steele Roberts, $44.99.

Home, perhaps, is where the typewriter is, or the stage. Actor, poet, playwright, critic, Bland was born in Yorkshire in 1934, and emigrated to Wellington in 1954.

Now 78, he has regularly bounced back and forth between the two countries ever since.

"I felt sometimes like an exile in both places, yes, and also at home in both places. I had a wife and three children to support, so I was following work in both directions, and there were some positive things about that. Each time you go to the other place, you see it freshly, which can be creatively invigorating. But then over the past 10 to 15 years, I felt more at home here than in England."

Alongside shrewd, pithy, precisely turned meditations on many other things, Bland's ever-shifting perspective on his itinerant existence is explored in depth in Collected Poems 1956-2011, a new book, he says, which represents his life's work.

"The book is almost an autobiography, told in poems, because I've always written from a very personal viewpoint. Perhaps that's part of not really knowing where you belong. I had to rely on an inner creativity to get me through, and the poems relate to very specific emotions I had during various key times."

Early chapters chart Bland's initial disappointment on finding New Zealand was not the promised land he had expected.

Written in Lower Hutt in 1959, Inheriting a Haunted State House depicts him shifting into an unpromising new home in winter, with "the silky remnants of a black lace slip/ roughly stuffed in a hole in the wall/ where it looks like someone's punched his fist/ through government three-ply".

"When I left England, it was that bleak post-war period. Ten years after the end of the war, we still had ration books. I remember I threw mine overboard on the boat coming out here. I thought I was coming to a land of plenty, with palm trees and hula girls, but Wellington felt mildly Stalinist when I got here. If you weren't a farmer, you worked for the Government. You get a good flavour of my first 15 years here in the first part of the book."

Over time, Bland befriended fellow poets Louis Johnson, Alistair Campbell, James K Baxter and Vincent O'Sullivan, and his writing grew deeper, richer, more personal. He became less intent on evoking a physical sense of place and more concerned with our inner emotional geography.

The exalted mountaintops, the dark valleys - his has been a life where the good times are never more than a few hours tramp away from loss, illness, death.

Both his parents died before he was 16, and a brother was killed during the war. He survived prostate cancer, and his wife, Beryl, died of kidney cancer in 2009. Aching, devastated and raw as a paper cut, the poems written around this period strike me as the strongest in the book. They read like the testimony of a man recently halved.

"It's ironic, but intense grief and suffering can be a very positive learning experience. If you don't go under, you come out of it with a deeper understanding of the human condition. My wife's illness was terrible and I nursed her at home for several years. She died four years ago, but it's only this year that I've got my head above water. It was a dreadful experience, but I think perhaps I'm a better person for it. My son said to me, ‘The poetry saved you, Dad', and he's right. Writing was a way I could deal with it all, and it's always been that way."

Bland has had 13 volumes of poetry published in New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and received numerous writing awards, including the 2011 Prime Minister's Award for outstanding contribution to literature.

He was a journalist for a while, and Head of Spoken Programmes at the old NZBC.

He was co-founder and artistic director of Downstage Theatre, for which he wrote several plays, and starred alongside Billy T James in the 1985 feature film Came a Hot Friday.

"The acting side helped with the poetry in some ways, because both require you to create and inhabit characters. But there was also an enmity between the two.

"When I started to become established as a comedic actor in the West End during the 70s and 80s, it was so demanding that it was difficult to find time to write."

Bland gave up acting in his mid-60s because of ill health. In many ways, it was a relief because he could devote himself to writing without the constant competition for his time.

Now, the fruits of his poetic labours have been corralled into a single modest volume: Peter Bland's adventures and disappointments, his insider-outsider perspective on his twin homelands, his elegant surrealist twists and hard-won wisdom, all boiled down into 308 poems, the best of which resonate like a forcefully struck bell.

"My entire adult life is condensed into these poems, so you get a pretty intense view of things. Right from the start, I've tried to discern the extraordinary in the ordinary, and people have said that I'm a strongly visual poet, which I think is true.

"But this book shows how my writing has changed over the years. I'm a better poet now than I was as a younger man, I think.

"With the passage of time, I became more willing to take risks, more honest and intimate and vulnerable emotionally.

"And these days, I can't get the words down fast enough. I'm 79 next month, so there's some underlying sense of urgency about my writing now. I feel as if the last 55 years of writing has taught me a lot about how I want to say things, and there's a great deal that still needs to be said."

Peter Bland, Collected Poems 1956-2011, Steele Roberts, $44.99.

Sunday Star Times