This interview with Glenn Colquhoun represents eloquently what Glenn thinks about brands, ugliness and beauty and poetry. Even in its idiosyncrasies, it offers a good barometer of poetry in the cultural field of production, and poetry’s relationship with marketing and branding in New Zealand at the time of the research journey. It also is representative of the themes and subjects covered in the Poetic Brandscapes interviews. At the time of the interview he was unpacking boxes in Otaki, after moving from Northland.
On space, place and landscape:
‘I have written some poems of place, but not heaps about landscape. I wrote about people in the place. Even if you don’t write about it as a subject matter, it is still infuses you, it’s what you are. It’s the first thing you look at when you get up and the last thing you look at before you go to bed. Its part of the rhythm of living in those places and it affects my writing because of that.’
On the Air Max shirt:
‘It was cheap, on sale.’
On brands and their (lack of) invitational qualities for co-imagination:
‘It’s one of those things that would probably benefit from just ticking away in the brain, I’m not conscious of asking myself that question so clearly. I can see where I’ve interacted with the world of brands and where I haven’t, but I’ve never asked it as a separate question, to look at things like that. So it would probably percolate, I’ll probably think of something smart to say, in about a week or two.’
On what a brand is or could be:
‘I guess, it depends what you mean and how you define brand, because you’ve got something very obvious and unambiguous like the Nike tic, or Armani or the three stripes or the McDonalds M. And right down the other end you’ve got a brand as almost a sense of identity. A brand as a person. And of course, lots of poets are. So I was thinking about lately a lot of poets that I like: I bought their brand, as much as I bought their poems. I buy the idea of them as a poet, and not just their poetry. Like Jim Baxter, always as a kid, I fell in love with the romance of that ‘prophet’, because I grew up in a religious background and that sort of profit-declaiming declamatory poetry. And I always bought that persona.
As I get older I see that a lot of that was, you know, – I see as a grown-up man, with some of those similar searches – I see that it’s all part of a search and I don’t buy it as clearly. I buy that it may have been valid for him. The other guy I really liked was Tuwhare. And he’s very much a brand too. He is as much a poem as his poems. And that sense of charm. And that is similar with Brian Turner; you know, you buy the whole package. CK Stead another guy, you know, you buy that sharp eagle-eye. And the whole wonderful image. And Sam Hunt, again, is a brand. So yes, I could talk about how I see myself fitting into that.’
On Poetry, poets and poems in relation to brands:
‘Poets as group are a brand. You buy into it, a brand of beings; the same way you buy into a brand of being a doctor. And you don’t always fulfil all those things. But sometimes you do. It’s like joining a union. And there are things you have in common, and you’re all a little bit similar. There are all things that you laugh at, the same sort of things when people talk about writing. And then there are individual brands within that broad brand.’
On defining his own brand as a poet:
‘Yes, it’s difficult. I think there is a degree of ‘unlikeliness’, like: ‘there’s a doctor writing poetry!’ that sense of coming from left field, not coming through mainstream poetry. Being a doctor, living in Northland, living between cultures. I was talking to someone the other day that people like to believe there are people between the cultures, that things are working at that level and so sometimes they are reassured by my poetry that Pakeha aren’t all bad people, that there are some that live between and find a third way.’
>But you must dislike that bridge function that is thrust upon you?
‘At times, but mainly people are very good to me, what can I say, Jesus Christ they buy my books and mostly they say nice things about me, every now and then they tune me up, which is necessary, there’s a correction in the market. But mostly they are very nice to me, exceedingly nice. People write nice letters to me and I am very spoiled!’
> You don’t offend a lot of people?
I am very inoffensive. Usually. Sometimes I get annoyed and stomp around the place, but I’m pretty inoffensive. So it doesn’t really piss me off. But there are times when people think that I might know something that I of course don’t know, or that I could speak for something that of course I couldn’t speak for.
>That they drag you into causes for something?
‘Yeah, sometimes that happens, sometimes, you know. Like I say, I just have a relationship with a group of people up North that are Maori, but that doesn’t mean I speak for them. Or for Maori, or even for Pakeha, at all. You know, I’m aware that lots of Pakeha people feel a bit differently than me and all power to them.’
On becoming a poet:
‘I guess I’m conscious of the fact that I’m pretty inoffensive. I like being nice to oldies, you know. I am still bemused by the fact that I’ve become a poet; part of me has become a poet. I’m still like: ‘Wow! Look I am playing for the All Blacks! Cool!’ There is still that feeling. So I guess I just feel very, very fortunate, I feel really lucky. And also there are so many people around me who I think have got wonderful stories, and are remarkable in their ordinariness. And they remind me that ordinariness is one of the great virtues. You don’t have to be extraordinary. You find the extraordinary thing in the ordinary thing that happens. So I like to play things down a lot. Because there is less far to fall when you fuck up. Also because usually it’s the stuff on the ground that I am most interested in, rather than the stuff in the sky.’
On poetry’s quality of making things transparent:
‘I do value beauty in words, I value the beauty, probably above all else, of trying to catch a thing and preserve it, to translate the experience of it and translate it and recreate it and disturb it as little as possible. That above all things is the exhilaration of poetry. But I like for it to be accessible, fair and democratic. The challenge is for me to come to somebody and find something in them and me and that thing that happened, that ties us all together. Rather than get them to do too much work to come to me. I’d rather find them.’
>Although maybe at this stage you would worry less about that.
‘I used to write very obscure poetry. But you know, there’s no-one in my background who would read poetry really. At all. And so, you know, you’ve really got to impress them to make them listen. And you’ve really got to go to them. I’ve never been able to have people around me who understood what a bloody Greek legend was anyway. When I was at University, yes, but when I would come home, no. The allusions that they would understand would all be from the bible. Jonah and the Whale and Noah and Jacob’s Ladder, and the Walls of Jericho. Those were the myths and legends I grew up with. They could understand allusions to those, but not to the canon of poetry. So I’m aware of that, I guess that people see me as being accessible, and non-demanding and I don’t kick cats, and I’m kind to old ladies, and I live in this place between cultures. My rebellion is in the poem. My rebellion is in the act of writing a poem. It’s a rebellion; it’s a way of looking at the world that I was never taught to do. It’s fundamentally different. I had a very, it was a prosaic upbringing, you know, except for these wonderful exhilarating bible stories, that were all completely subversive. But you never thought of them as subversive, but they are.’
On living in the country rather than the city:
‘It’s away from clutter. I hate clutter.’
On defining ugliness:
‘It’s really interesting, because I find myself immediately balking at the idea of ugliness, because I’m aware that it’s a completely subjective thing. And that when I say ugliness, when I hear ugliness, I think, well: whose ugliness? It’s just a thing to be defined.’
>But it doesn’t inspire you poetically?
‘Whenever someone calls someone ugly, and that’s the subversion of poetry in me, whenever somebody says something’s ugly, I immediately will look to find that it’s beautiful, because that’s what you do. That’s what I do, or how we should do. Should is a harsh word, because nobody should do anything, probably. I can see complete and utter beauty in a decaying urban landscape, but it’s not where I choose to live. I like to live uncluttered, because then I can see and think clearly, but you can do that in a decaying cluttered environment; you just have to concentrate harder. I think there’s something for me about open skies and a beach that makes me see, that slows me down, makes me see more clearly but, I know I can do it in a hard city scape as well. I just have to focus more clearly and it stops being ugly, and it becomes beautiful.
And what does ugliness mean too? I choose not to live in a city and I find it gets to me a little bit, even though I grew up in South Auckland, but it gets to me a bit and I feel trapped after a while, but I wouldn’t call it ugly. I’d call it cluttered. I’m a hard bastard to pin down on ideas of beauty and ugliness, because I just find them so so fluid.’
On asking poets to evoke the beauty and ugliness of brandscapes:
‘It’s almost like I don’t feel like I have a great right to say what’s ugly or not ugly. Just what I’m drawn to at a particular time and what I’m not drawn to. But I’m aware that what I’m not drawn to in a couple of years, I might be drawn to, because that’s already happened in my life. It goes around like that. To me it’s the same as boring. Ugly and boring most negative words, they’re ways of looking at things and nothing is necessarily or inherently boring or ugly, but what you bring to it. A boring way of looking at it, or an ugly way of looking at it. I think it gets to me. But I get sick of sitting in traffic. It’s a different energy. I think above all, I’m a bit of a soft bastard, and I like just soft gentle things. And I like that energy mode, it’s like a big soft couch, but I could get into the mood of a hard edge hard-ass city, but my natural place is a big soft couch watching TV.’
On the ugliness of disease:
‘But again, it’s the same thing of saying what we call ugly. It’s only what we call ugly. And a disease is often another life form trying to get an even break and it is disease, but we see it from our anthropomorphic point of view. I’m very relativistic, if there such a word. Everything is very relative. Sometimes to find the beauty in something is subversive as well as gentle at the same time. And it’s also, I think if there is such a high. I don’t even know if there’s a high for that part of the job, I mean what you do: you just play with words and make stuff. On another level, the core of poetry for me is to look differently at something. To look at it the second time. It’s the second look and the second look leads to the third look, and the fourth look, and after that the world is such a subtle subtle subtle varied place, there’s almost no room for who’s to bless and who’s to blame, and good and evil and …. And ugly. It all just is, it’s so incredibly interrelated, that those things are only scaffolding to help us get along. We create those words in distinction so that we can function without having to think too hard. People are sick in your face, and die on you, or get bad news. Bad things happen or their bodies are decaying away, or, they’re getting better and they’re feeling relief. And they’ve survived, so the immediacy of human emotion is there. It’s a great window seat.’
On what poetry is:
‘The real, the thing I love most about poetry, and the thing for me that is the core of it, is to escape and to arrive at the same time, it’s like a form of escape but at the same time as you’re escaping you’re actually looking more closely, you’re actually arriving at things much more .. you know, it’s gets to the point. It gets to the point of things. And often by doing that, there’s a release. If that makes any sense?’
‘Rather than a running away, a sort of escape, it’s a plunge into it, and once you plunge inside it, there’s a release within it. That is by engaging you escape rather than by running away. It’s a wonderful engagement with the world. Nothing is ordinary, nothing is boring, and everything is something else. But I don’t know how that fits in with brands. I’m not so worried about all those things I just want to tell little stories about things I saw, and what people make of that, or do with it, is fine, because if they buy my poems, that’s great. If they don’t, I’ll be hurt, but I’d still do it. Because it’s the main reason I do it, is because if I don’t do it, I’m miserable to live with. I feel like I’m not doing something important. And I write around, I don’t think, I don’t know if I could write a collection of poems that would just be about different things, you know. I write on a theme because it’s a way of thinking, I’m exploring it. A theme is a way to organize my response.’
So I mean, I guess we’ve discussed that power, in terms of using brands in poetry like commercial brands. I just think everything is fair game. But it doesn’t always connect. If I say it, will my audience understand that brand that I’m talking about? And where I come from, brands they understand would be KFC and McDonalds, you know, maybe not so much Armani or Moschino. It just depends, but:
Everything’s there to be used.