Monday, May 18, 2015

Something to Say: i.m. John O'Connor

John O'Connor (d. 12 May, 2015)

all down the Jewish lane children are falling. it’s a game called autumn, a pastiche of drifting leaves and gathering. yet one stays out, has not joined her companions in what they suppose is a fine tumble, quick in the wind, now still.

just one moved towards the vents. a photograph shows them piled in a corner, naked and shaved, almost as if stacked up. yet one figure is in front of the group — as if she had something important to say

This is the prose-poem "Something to Say," By John O'Connor, included in David Howard's anthology Complete with Instructions. It's always been a favourite of mine - among the very many poems of his I liked.

David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)

It was David Howard who introduced the two of us, in fact. I was going down to Christchurch to teach a weekend writing course, and David suggested that I take the opportunity to interview a bunch of the local poets down there for a possible feature in his new magazine Firebrand (which eventually, after many vicissitudes, turned into the anthology pictured above).

I was happy enough to do it, and had a fascinating time driving round the city and talking to the likes of Julia Allen, John Allison, Kenneth Fea, David Gregory, Rob Jackaman, Graham Lindsay, Mike Minehan, and - John O'Connor (you can find complete texts of the various interviews, which I ended up calling "Imaginary Toads in Real Gardens," on my Opinions blog here.

John O'Connor had recently helped to set up Sudden Valley Press, and was active in the Canterbury Poets Collective, and seemed in many ways a natural organiser. It was quite a surprise to me to find out just how delicate and subtle his poetry could be. He wrote in many voices, some of which appealed to me more than others, but in every one of his many books there was always the chance of turning the page and finding something quite extraordinary - something like that haunting prose-poem I've reprinted above.

Here's a list of his books, as accurate as I can make it from my own notes and reviews of his work over the years. There could well be some missing. These are the main ones, though:

John O’Connor: haiku

  1. Laying Autumn’s Dust: Poems and Verse 1974-1983. Concept Publishing, 1983.

  2. Citizen of No Mean City: Poems and Verse 1983-1985. Concept Publishing, 1985.

  3. [with Bernard Gadd]. Too Right Mate. Hallard Press, 1996.

  4. As It Is: Poems 1981-1996. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1997.

  5. A Particular Context. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1999.

  6. [with Eric Mould]. Working Voices. Auckland: Hallard Press, 2003.

  7. Home River. Auckland: Hallard Press, 2003.

  8. Bright the Harvest Moon. Wellington: HeadworX, 2004.

  9. Parts of the Moon: Selected Haiku & Senryu 1988-2007. Teneriffe: Post Pressed, 2007.

  10. Cornelius & Co: Collected Working-Class Verse, 1996-2009. Teneriffe, Queensland: Post Pressed, 2009.

  11. Aspects of Reality. Wellington: HeadworX, 2013.

  12. Whistling in the Dark. Wellington: HeadworX, 2014.

John O’Connor: Whistling in the Dark (2014)

There's a brief bio / bibliography up at the Aotearoa NZ Poetry Sound Archive, but it dates from 2004, over a decade ago, so is pretty out-of-date. He'd done a great deal since then:
John O’Connor is a past winner of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s International Prize, founding editor of the poetry journal plainwraps and has edited various issues of Takahe, Spin, and the NZPS annual anthology. With David Gregory he founded Poets Group and also Sudden Valley Press of which he is managing editor. John’s haiku have been internationally anthologised on a number of occasions, translated into 6 languages and were recently chosen as “best of issue” in Frogpond International, a special issue of the leading US haiku periodical, Frogpond, featuring haiku from 26 countries. His criticism and non-haiku poetry have been widely published in New Zealand and overseas, and his work has been anthologised by Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell in Essential New Zealand Poems. His last book, A Particular Context, was chosen by members of the Poetry Society as one of the 5 best books of New Zealand poetry of the 1990s.

John O’Connor: A Particular Context (1999)

I guess one of my own fondest memories of John is the roadtrip we did together out to Banks Peninsula in 2003. The ostensible reason for the jaunt was to look for the grave of D'Arcy Cresswell - in which attempt we were singularly unsuccessful (though we did find the grave of a Douglas Cresswell), but actually it was really just to explore a bit. We ended up at Port Levy, as I recall, and John did a good deal of quoting from Denis Glover's Towards Banks Peninsula along the way - not to mention his own poem "At Port Levy."

I wrote a poem about our trip, in fact: probably too allusive to make much sense without the context of that day out in the hills, but I give it here as a little tribute to that good man and good poet John O'Connor - "A red libation to your good memory, friend":

Towards Banks Peninsula
i.m. John O'Connor (d. 12/5/15)

1 - The Summons

Feed, propagate, be fed on; please someone; die.
– Kendrick Smithyman

Mahogany desk
goodness sake

a gobfull
that’s disgusting

didn’t mean to
set for

sun breaks through
the clouds

2 - Searching for the Original


– road-sign

Dog gobbles up flies
from the floor of the church

Not D’Arcy
Douglas Cresswell

dug in
with his wife

Look up at the hills
stone plugs

the fairies lived there
girl could tell you more

John O’Connor & Eric Mould: Working Voices (2003)

I'm glad I was able to include two beautiful translations by John in the last issue of Poetry NZ, together with a notice of his latest book. I didn't then fully understand the significance of its title, Whistling in the Dark.

John O'Connor is a man who will be sorely missed, and I'm sorry that there won't be any more of his wonderful books to leaf through, with curious surprises lurking behind the most unobtrusive pages.

John O'Connor: As It Is (1997)


Richard said...

Remember I reviewed a book of John's in Pander. I'm sure it was him. And my review was anonymous, and he didn't like your review (?) at the time: but he praised mine as perceptive or something. Hamish objected though, that I had suggested ways for him to improve his Haibuns and Haikus. Telling, if not God what to do, what poets should do to improve their poems...well I thought, if I crit. and suggest improvements, he might change or ignore, but better than just saying that it is not very good or weak in parts etc, so more positive to suggest improvements. Now, he actually appreciated my suggestions! (I am sure, he pointed to mine in contrast to yours Jack!) But that was a long time ago and he wrote a lot more books since then...

I saw that somewhere a few months back. I had seen that in some of his Haibuns or whatever they were, that, for my way of thinking, the SUBJECT or even the object could be left out. (I mean I might well have needed a similar "crtique" but I think I was awake to the kind of trap I saw he fell into (my faults were numerous but I wasn't being reviwed!). The leaving off, for me, made the event or process in his poem more universal, and increased the mystery, the magic and the power of the words he was using, and I could see he could write well.

I did like some poems he wrote set on a beach...

And, indeed, I did see some of his other poems that were very good. I only have 'Citizen of No Mean City: Poems and Verse 1983-1985. Concept Publishing, 1985.' on my shelf. But I will add vols of his when I see them at a reasonable price. I mean I am as much a collator, or collector, or amasser as anything else. I am not quite up to the tonnage of the huge Mairangi Bay archives though...

But that quote above is indeed quite moving. I think some of his short attempts at satire in the book I have are simply silly (just as I think probably Ed Dorn of 'Gunslinger' is probably better than the Ed Dorn of 'Abhorrences').

But it is sad to hear he has died. He sounds as though he was a likeable man. D'Arcy Cresswell. I wrote an essay for Smithyman on some writing by him, the writing was clever and a bit tongue in cheek. Smithyman said it was published in something but then withdrawn (when he marked my essay, which got good marks - 1968).
Your poem is typical of that unique, almost fragmented style you have evolved Jack.

Are some of the lines things O'Conner said or does it reflect events unfolding etc Interesting though, in any case?

Good that you have archived his works at least the names of the books. Good work done.

Richard said...

I wonder if I mixed him up with John Allison. I keep doing that kind of thing. I cant recall. I do remember poems by John O'Connor though which were very good.

John Allison said...

Hi Richard, I think you haven't mixed John O'Connor with me. Your comments seem to be about the man and poet I knew.

Richard said...

Yes I did, I have books by both in my poetry section. Fortunately you are still with us. It was your book I "critiqued". I see I have written comments on my copy and I liked a lot of your poems in Stone Moon (not all of course, but then I don't like many of my own poems!)... I also have two books by John O'Connor. And somehow I also forget which of you wrote essays in PNZ but I am sure you wrote some and I liked them...So, hopefully no harm done.

Jack knew the other John and you also. Thanks for commenting. It is a pity more people don't respond via Jack or some of the other poet-bloggers. I know that Twitter etc are somewhat taking over but Blogs still have a place I think, as do of course, non-electronic journals.

I myself am longing for the day all electronic and computer things get knocked out and we have to write letters etc again (not that I ever wrote many letters, but it was a better world pre computers etc)...

But I hope all is well. Richard.