Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hooning around Hawke's Bay

[I do have a bunch of photos I took of our little jaunt, but I must be one of the very few people still using an old-fashioned film camera, so you'll have to wait till I get the roll developed -- in the meantime, these black and white programme notes for the reading on Saturday night will have to do.]

The real unsung heroes of the whole affair, I reckon, were Tim Page and Mark Fryer, who did all the actual driving. Most of us travelled down in an (alleged) eleven-seater minibus, which actually had a bit of trouble accommodating nine + assorted baggage (including tripods, cameras, sound equipment etc.)

Then on the way back up to Auckland there was Michele's new staff to fit in behind the two front seats. It looks exactly like a pool cue. In fact it is (originally, at any rate) a pool cue. It's a lovely sky-blue, with some paua and silver at the top, and lots of white tracery of Michele-oriented imagery around the shaft.

Jacob Scott is a very contemporary artist, despite operating in such a traditional context. His murals in the marae wharekai were breathtaking visions of life in the Hawke's Bay over the past century or so. His previous laureate staffs have included (we were told) a hockey stick for Brian Turner, and a dipstick for measuring the level of winecasks for Hone. The pool cue fitted like a glove, in other words.

The Matua staff, which will now be housed in the National Library, has a firestick motif. In fact it is a firestick, though I'd hate to have to use it to produce a spark. It does, nevertheless, screw apart and could be used to provide friction if necessary. It'll be doing a bit of snuggling up to each new laureate staff in turn, apparently.

There were many highlights. Michele's moving speech after the long powhiri of welcome, where she told the assembled company how obnoxious we'd been on the drive down, and how she was going to be keeping us in line with her new stick on the way back. Not me, mind you. I was very good. I can't say the same for any of the others.

Then there was the evening reading in the massive Hawke's Bay Opera House. When I heard we were going to be in a side-room rather than the main auditorium, I had in mind something like a dusty old office in the Memorial Settlers' Hall. It was a massive ballroom! Full of tables! When we first saw it at the rehearsal on Friday night, we thought it must still be set up for a mega-wedding reception. Not so. It was set up for us. 180 people seated around huge banqueting tables.

What an audience! They laughed, they cried -- they came up and asked for autographs ... One of the real masterstrokes was the idea of asking some local secondary school students, winners of a poetry competition to read with us. I have to say that there are going to be some broken hearts when that quartet move away to the big city. And their poetry was pretty good, too.

Sorry, that sounds sarky. But the thing is, you don't really expect that much on these occasions. Just a polite clap for some piece of doggerel. But these were real poems -- by accomplished young writers. More amazingly still, they all stood up, read two poems, and sat down. That's the only reason the evening finished more or less on time. The rest of us were far less disciplined. No, they really blew me away. Come up and study writing at Massey Albany, guys -- don't let those people at Vic lure you away.

The discussion of Michele's winged words got so extravagant (and non-specific) at times, that I suspect she wondered if anyone present had ever actually read any of her books. We were able to reassure her that everybody on Matahiwi marae -- where we stayed for two nights -- was speaking from knowledge.

On the night we arrived Murray Edmond spoke for us, and his speech included a reading of a recent poem of Michele's. I guess I'm giving the game away a bit, but he prefaced it by saying that not only was it a wonderful poem (it was), but that Michele was pretty wonderful too ("though I'd never admit it to her face"). Sorry, Murray, I've blown your cover. And, yes, you're right -- Michele is pretty wonderful.

When we left we presented our hosts - now friends - at the marae with a kete of books, our books, to stay behind and be used there. I don't think any of us had anticipated that parting would be so emotional. They really took us to their hearts, and I thank them again from the bottom of mine.

Oh, and last but not least, Pipi Cafe, Havelock North, deserves all the puffs it can get for feeding a bunch of hungry poets for free, on the most sumptuous pizzas I've tasted for many a long day. Their "poesy" bread, with a little poetry postcard tucked into each packet, is well worth checking out. We were late, too, and had to take off in a hurry, so I think it's a tribute to their efficiency as well as their kindness that everyone was fed in time ...

I could go on -- the visit to Jacob's house, the swim in the lagoon, the photo-stop by Pania of the Reed, filming Rowley Habib -- but maybe that's enough for now. The people of the Hawke's Bay certainly made a bunch of Aucklanders feel more than welcome last weekend.

When's the next roadtrip?

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