Launch Speech by Nelson Wattie on Mark Pirie and Michael O'Leary

Speech by Nelson Wattie at Quilters Bookshop, Wellington 20th December 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my honour and privilege to introduce you to two remarkable books today: Tom by Mark Pirie and The Earl is in: 25 years of the Earl of Seacliff edited by Mark Pirie. To this audience I probably don't have to introduce the two men behind the books, but I will briefly do so all the same. You will have noticed that Mark Pirie figures as the author of one book and the editor of the other. That is a small indication of a very big fact: Mark Pirie is one of the most prolific poets, editors, publishers and entrepreneurs on the scene of New Zealand literature. I have made no effort to count how many books and journals he is responsible for in some way, but, to risk a ball-park approximation: it's a helluva lot.

This launching speech should really have been given by Mark's friend and fellow-poet, Harvey McQueen. Sadly, Harvey is too ill to be with us, but I would like to let his words be heard here by reading an excerpt from his blog. There is more to be found there if you go and inquire:

Poetically, Mark is prolific, selfless, zealous and restless. He was co-editor of JAAM literary journal from 1995 to 2005. The NeXt Wave, his anthology of "Generation X" writing was published in 1998. He has helped with international conferences and co-organised Winter Readings. In 2008 he began a new periodical called "Broadsheet" in a chapbook form with the aim of publishing high quality poetry at an affordable price.

His own work reflects a fascination with popular culture such as comics, pop lyrics and movies. The camera is one of the defining devices of the 20th century. Its use altered literature as well as art. … There is an element of composition, just as in photography. Then there is organisation, the craft behind apparent casualness.

As a poet, Mark has a unique voice - at least I think he has. Commentators call him a representative of Generation X, but since I have no idea what that is, in my view Mark's voice is unique. It has a curious blend of self assertion and self deprecation. It shows a broad-based awareness of the traditions of poetry in English and affection for its masterpieces blended with a curious refusal to adopt any of the tones of voice of that tradition and a quiet refusal to go anywhere near producing something that might claim to be a masterpiece. This voice is both arrogant and modest, both insistent and casually dismissive, both serious and comic, both neurotic and laid-back - so it blends a number of opposites, and in addition to any confusion that may cause, for a person of my age it is also disconcertingly youthful.

Mark's new book Tom calls itself "a novel in verse", and indeed, although there is little plot in the traditional sense, it concerns a small group of characters: the eponymous Tom, a student at Victoria University, and his girlfriend and friends. The incidents are unremarkable, but typical of student life and the strength of the book comes from the fact that both Tom and the author sometimes satirise the university and its inhabitants and sometimes merely look at them without the prejudice of great expectations, hopes and ambitions that often obscure the sordid banality of university life - and that way of looking at them amounts to something like satire in itself. Many modern poets enjoy irony and bring a vague smile to my lips, but there are not many books of poetry that make me laugh aloud in delight and amusement at their passing quirks. Tom does that for me, and I'm grateful for it. But the bigger trick is that it is not only funny but serious as well. That's one of the blends or paradoxes I noted above.

Mark Pirie and Tom have the ability to make me question my own values. Am I too pompous? Do I take certain things too seriously? Am I too respectful towards "great" writers and "important" men or women? Have I taken things for granted which, like everything, should really be questioned? This book disturbs some layers of my complacency, and yet it makes no frontal attack on them as the "Angry Young Men" of my youth might have done. It just shrugs them off and then finds compensation for the loss in some other, more creative thing. Typical is a moment when Tom's flat has been devastated by gatecrashers to a party and the landlord is about to appear at the door. Tom's attitude is to look on the bright side.

This optimism in the face of domestic disaster is found again and again. Just as the place has been tidied up, the rowdies return and throw a huge, damaging rock. Tom's reaction is to write a piece of doggerel about it and then say, "Good to get a poem out of it". Similar compensations to damage are to be gained from listening to some interesting music.

This is where a gap between writer and me as reader, misnamed a generation gap, manifests itself again. Both the men behind these books have an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music. I know absolutely nothing about it. At an age when Mark and Michael were acquiring that knowledge I was trying to get my head around Bach's Goldberg Variations and Beethoven's late quartets. Decades later I am still trying to get my head around those so that I have no time to even dip into the Mark/Michael encyclopedia of music. Apparently that music shapes much of what they do, and yet I enjoy much of what they do without that sort of knowledge. Which just goes to show … something.

And that brings me to the Earl of Seacliff. Again I will make a perfectly unnecessary introduction. Seacliff is a place not far from Dunedin best known for the former mental hospital there, which is best known in turn as a place where Janet Frame was incarcerated. His Lordship the Earl of Seacliff asserted his right to the title because the great Earls of Ireland were abolished by the English, and you have to begin somewhere in reasserting Irish rights.

In some ways the Earl of Seacliff reminds me of Barry Humphries. Both are witty, intelligent and creative. But both are a bit reclusive, and they have sent more lively, extravagant, charismatic, assertive, life-enhancing versions of themselves out into the world. Just as Barry Humphries has created Dame Edna Everidge, the Earl of Seacliff has created the redoubtable Michael O'Leary. And just as some people seem to think that Dame Edna is real, some people think that Michael O'Leary is real as well. Both are wonderful creations and behind each is a quieter, even more wonderful creator. In our case the wonderful creator is The Earl of Seacliff.

In the interests of Irish rights, and because I share the Earl's pleasure in spreading confusion, I shall refer to the Earl in what follows as Michael O'Leary. I hope that you will also be able to follow.

The book 25 Years of the Earl of Seacliff celebrates a man who has made his mark on our suffering world as a poet, a novelist, a short-story writer, a painter and graphic artist, a wit, a lover of women, a bookseller, a lover of humanity, a labourer on the railways and in other margins of industry, an editor, and a very generous publisher. In all of these roles he has distinguished himself in unique ways and all are celebrated in this book, in addition to the major roles of a loving brother to his siblings and a loyal friend to people who often but not always deserve his loyalty.

Like the man itself, the book is a colourful, never boring volume. It is laid out in dictionary form - in alphabetical order with headings that begin: A Sonnet to Ché Guevara, After Tokyo, Alternative Small Press Publishing in New Zealand … Auckland Years; and which end with: Unlevel Crossings, Wellington Years, While My Guitar Violently Wails, White Album Readings, Winter Readings, Women's Conference and Wrapper.

The authors are a huge range of writer friends, artist friends and friends, friends, friends. I read it from cover to cover and found that the absence of a chronological arrangement was actually an advantage. One is able to piece Michael's public life and some of his private life together as one goes, as if one is assembling a mosaic, and the element of surprise is all the stronger for the changing voices and topics.

Here are a couple of quotations to give you the flavour.

After Michael had published her book Gorilla/Guerilla, Elizabeth Smither wrote: "Publishing is not what it was, but Michael represents what it should be, what it is in every writer's heart of hearts. Books produced without fuss or flourish; not a meddling accountant in sight. Just good friends, word of mouth, faith in literature … and the presiding generous spirit of an alpha gorilla."

A favourite anecdote about Michael is told by Janet Frame's literary executor, Pamela Gordon. Like many encounters with Michael and with the characters in his novel, this one took place on a train. Pamela entered the train with Michael, knowing that Janet would be on it and looking forward to introducing two friends. She did so, "and when Michael met Janet, he shook her hand and said, "I am the Earl of Seacliff. She smiled graciously and said, "And I am the queen of Seacliff."

The word "aroha" recurs in the course of the book. "Aroha" is often translated "love", but the Māori term is more socially embracing than the English one. It is not reserved for one person loving another but for one or many people loving one or many others. It is an appropriate word to encounter again and again here, because this book is a tribute to a man who dispenses and receives aroha from and to many of his fellow human beings.

I would like to conclude with an anecdote that did not find its way into the book. When I was the President of the New Zealand Poetry Society, I invited Michael to come and read to us. Some may remember the occasion in Turnbull House. One of Michael's poems included the phrase "and the earth moved". There was a pause of a minute or two, while the earth considered the words, and then the floor and walls of Turnbull House creaked and sang as Wellington enjoyed one of its more entertaining earthquakes.

This power of words and of Michael's charisma will make many hearts as spirits quake as they read this book.

Nelson Wattie 

Nelson Wattie is a Wellington-based translator, literary scholar, poet and co-editor of The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (1998).