Interview with
Cliff Fell

Cliff Fell is a London-born poet, essayist, musician and book reviewer who settled in New Zealand in 1998. His two collections of poems are The Adulterer's Bible (Victoria University Press, 2003) and Beauty of the Badlands (Victoria University Press, 2008). The first was awarded the Adam Prize and the Jessie Mackay Prize for Poetry. In this interview he discusses the two poems that appear in Griffith REVIEW 43.

You have two poems published in this edition of Griffith REVIEW, and I'm interested in where the ideas for each of them first came from.

Well, they came about in very different ways, though they have themes in common. 'Encounter above the Hurunui' sprang literally out of the moments the poem describes – a plane trip from Christchurch to Nelson, which is where I live. It was the last leg of a thirty-hour journey back from England, from visiting my elderly parents there, in February of 2013, and I found myself sitting with two Māori brothers, who hadn't seen each other for some years and had happened to catch the same flight, by coincidence. So it immediately felt like something mysterious was going on. One of the brothers was a would-be comedian, gregarious, an out and out joker, the other a little morose, or quieter, probably because he was off to court and most likely a spell in the clink. Heaven knows what was or might have been going on between the two of them, meeting like that, but together we made an unlikely trio cracking jokes and, especially on the part of Haddock – which was how he introduced himself – a hilarious running commentary on the journey. Oh, and there is of course another character in the poem, the flight attendant, who really was called Hope, a name which for a moment became the focus of our jests and laughter. Though not in any kind of negative way. How can you be negative about Hope? And somehow, when we ran out of talk – and I suppose this is really where the poem came from – I had the nous, despite the jetlag, or perhaps because of it, to reach for my notebook and get down the gist of what we'd been going on about. What I was acutely aware of was how this encounter seemed to answer something in me that I sometimes wonder about, especially when I'm just back from England, which is where I was born. It's the question of what is home for me, or where do I belong – or more bluntly, do I really belong in New Zealand? The way these Māori had drawn me into their world so openly, so seemingly without judgment – as no other strangers had in the time I'd been away – seemed to be telling me that, maybe yes, I was now home. So, I got the title then and there, as I was scribbling, and in many ways that's where the poem really comes from, from that title with its take on early colonial 'encounters'. The Hurunui, by the way, is a river that flows out of the Kaikoura range into the eastern seaboard of the South Island, but of course this is a postcolonial, or dare I say, even postmodern take on the colonial narrative, as it takes place 'above' rather than 'on' the Hurunui. Oh, by the way, as the poet John Newton reminded me, the river north of the Hurunui is the Hope. I'd forgotten that when I wrote the poem.

'L'Anima Verde' came about in sadder circumstances, following two deaths. Initially – it was 2 July last year – Lloyd Jones emailed me about writing a poem for this edition of Griffith REVIEW, on the theme of Pacific Highways. I was at work, but wrote back instantly, outlining an idea for a poem about my New Zealand grandfather who'd captained a ship in the Pacific at the end of the last war. I had in mind tales my father had told me of him carrying groups of young women, Voluntary Aid Detachment, and various onboard goings on and affairs and so on and made a mental note to phone my father as soon as I could, because he might tell me more. Ah, but in the way of these things, when I got home that same night, it was to learn that he was in a coma, after a fall. He died within a week, as the poem relates, and I found I couldn't write anything, really, needless to say. Two months went by, and I was struggling with a poem that began, fairly lamely: 'To begin with a boat called Bonaventure'. Then, at the end of August, I heard – it was a Saturday morning – Seamus Heaney had just died. A different kind of sadness, but in some ways almost as weighty for me. I got out my copy of Human Chain and read, that morning, his poem about the eelworks – which obviously relates back to the Lough Neagh fishermen sequence from one of his first books – Door into the Dark (Faber & Faber, 1969), I think – which had been a profound experience for me when I first read it in the 1980s. Then, the strange thing. We live on a farm, and later that same morning, I was fixing a fence and redirecting a small winter creek, a runoff from the hills that had undermined a gate post, when I came across an eel, which is unusual, because you rarely see them, especially in the daytime, let alone that they've been in decline over the last twenty years or so. I had to shift it to another part of the creek and as I did it seemed like a gift, this eel in my hands. I know this will sound fanciful, but it was like I could hear Heaney's voice, that mellifluous Derry accent, saying to me: 'Go on, write about the eel – give yourself permission. Make it yours.' Well, that took me back to the Montale poem 'L'Anguilla/The Eel' – because how can you write about an eel without taking in that great poem? Originally, I should say, my poem had Heaney's death in it, too, at the close of the first section, but in the end it seemed to me that with the Montale reference driving the poem – the title is his untranslated image – to have mentioned Heaney as well could have been overloading the poem. Then, one other strange thing, which circles round like the eel itself: my father was a painter and when I'd last spent time with him, apart from the day on which he died, I'd come away with a book, a beautiful Thames and Hudson edition of Gauguin's paintings, which are set against a selection of his letters and other writings. Gauguin is important for me, because when I was eleven I read a novel, either the source of, or else based on, the Anthony Quinn/Kirk Douglas film of Gauguin and Van Gogh, Lust for Life (1956) – which I've still not seen. But back then reading that novel gave me some kind of sense of a Bohemian artist's lifestyle that was intriguing and definitely enticing to an eleven year old. That novel was also my first introduction to Polynesian culture and the Pacific. So, as I was writing 'L'Anima Verde', I found I was using the Thames and Hudson book as a kind of visual reference, a colour chart for the poem. But it sent me at some point to seek out and read the complete Noa Noa, Gauguin's Tahitian memoir. Perhaps I was fishing for just such a reference – in fact, I definitely was – but when I came across his encounter with the great eel, obviously an aspect of the mythical Polynesian eel, Tunaroa, the poem took on another turn. Maybe, even, and this occurs to me right now, maybe there's a reference to that same eel in the Lust for Life novel that I've been carrying with me since I was eleven and so I already knew deep down that it was there. I'll have to check that out. But anyway, I should say that much of that section – the third section, I think – draws on Gauguin's writings.

Structurally, both poems follow a narrative format, but, particularly in L'Anima Verde, you've used that structure to combine story, information, and personal memory, as well as mirroring the poetic structures used to write about Greek or Roman mythology and turning them on Polynesian mythology. I know it's a very broad question, but I'm interested on your thoughts on the benefits of that sort of structure, and why it appeals to you as a poet.

I don't know, or maybe I'd wonder sometimes – if I thought about it at all – whether there are any benefits to this kind of approach. It's hard for me to judge, certainly in terms of how my poems are received. I guess it could be that some readers are turned off by overly narrative poems or by the foregrounding or even nuancing of mythical stuff. That's an impression I sometimes get, that the references can come across as a little too lofty. But, regardless of that, all I know is that narrative poems and the use of mythology as a kind of motif seem to work for me, or at times they do. So there are benefits in terms of production, of writing. Perhaps it's just a case of modelling poets I used to read when I was younger, like Frost or Gary Snyder or others I've read more recently: Akhmatova's longer poems, 'By the Seashore' or 'Northern Elegies' come to mind. Or Derek Walcott. And Basil Bunting's 'Briggflatts': that was an important influence early on. As for the use of mythology, Robert Graves' The White Goddess (Faber & Faber, 1948) was a key book when I was in my twenties and trying to figure out how to write poems. I took it with me on an overland journey from England to India in the bitterly cold winter of 1978 and it somehow helped make sense of all the different cultures and countries I was travelling through – as though beneath all the evident differences that seemed to mask the visible world – like the snow that was falling everywhere – there were underlying archetypes and stories – myths – that had the power to unify everything. That's how I came to mythology as a theme and I guess I took to heart Graves' notion that the poet should have this stuff in mind and should be writing from such a perspective – and that the role of myth-making was part and parcel with the development of making poems. That's not to say that all my poems are essays in mythology, but I enjoy being in touch with those stories, and reading them in Roman and Greek sources – albeit in translation as my Greek is nonexistent and my Latin quite slow. Also, it's because of that extraordinary thing – it's like time travelling. Reading the ancient poets and stories lets you hear voices from the past. The other thing about myths is that they are really just a repository for ideas, but in story form. Isn't that what Plato has Socrates saying in The Phaedrus? That's the moment where ideas and story take separate paths – for a while anyway – though only in terms of western culture, of course, where we're now embarked on the journey of making new myths. Because you can't really escape the myth-making impulse, or so I suspect. Right at the end of The Divine Comedy when Dante is gazing at the Godhead, and almost at a loss for words, the only image he can conjure up – in such a seemingly Christian work – is from Greek mythology, of Neptune gazing up at the keel of the Argo. That's pretty amazing if you think about it. The analogy he draws is of humans as a pagan god, and the Godhead as a boat, implicitly a human construct. Or that's how I remember it. But, anyway, like the earlier generation of Europeans coming to the Pacific, I brought those stories with me – on that boat, that waka, as it were – and yes, I suppose – like many before me – I've tried to make sense of the world and respond to Polynesian myths through the Jungian lens of looking for archetypes and correspondences. So, to go back to the particulars of the poem, that's what made that eel so significant for me when it passed through my hands. It seemed somehow to belong to both western and Pacific worlds. I already knew that there were Polynesian stories, myths, relating to Maui, in which the eel can be seen as a representation of male sexuality, among other things. Of course 'anima' is the term Jung gave to that shadowy sexual aspect of the male archetype. The eel brought all that to life for me, as it wriggled through my fingers. And in the course of writing the poem I learned of other eel myths in Micronesia.

Both poems have a strong link to the land and the stories submerged in the landscape of New Zealand and the Pacific. I know you were born in the UK and you've travelled widely, so I'm interested in what you see as special or unique about New Zealand having seen it so often from the outside.

I certainly read Montale's eel as a symbol of fecundity or some kind of fertility rite submerged but alive in the land itself. I suppose that's what I've tried to foreground, and highlight, amongst other things – not least that 'anima' also means soul in Italian, so that the journey of the soul and a sense of fertility and ongoing cycles of life and sexuality are things I try to draw together in my poem. The scary thing in New Zealand, in terms of the land's fertility, is that the quest for the dairy dollar has drained so much wetland, destroying the habitat in which the eel thrives. And in a way, on a much smaller scale, I was doing much the same when I redirected that little stream that the eel emerged from. As for the unique thing about New Zealand, for me it's absolutely clear. Aotearoa-New Zealand, as I should say, is unique in being the whenua, the land, of te ao Māori, the Māori world, the version of Polynesian culture that developed here, probably in response to environmental factors, amongst other things. I don't know about that in detail. You'd need to speak to an anthropologist about how and why it formed its particular character. And a thing that is also special – and it's obviously related to Māori culture – is that compared to the rest of the world, these islands were only inhabited relatively recently. We all came here from somewhere else. I suppose that fact has been used in the past by some Pākehā (non-Māori) as an argument – a false argument – to diminish the rights of tangata whenua, the people of the land, the first people. But, that's offset by another thing that's special – those very rights are enshrined in a treaty – Te Tiriti o Waitangi. You could make a case for the treaty as one of the first and preeminent texts of Liberal Humanism. How it came about, I'm not sure. It certainly seems like an aberration in the general discourse of nineteenth century colonialism. Perhaps it was just a fluke of the moment, or a matter of economics, or that England was still benignly basking under the spell of their new young queen, Victoria. It certainly wasn't long before the spirit of the treaty was being broken, as it still is at times. But, initially, it seems to generally have been a cordial, mutually beneficial encounter of the two peoples, Māori and Pākehā, which brought about the partnership enshrined in Te Tiriti. That takes us back to 'Encounter above the Hurunui' of course, but more importantly it takes us to this point: that all Pākehā poetry written in this country must inevitably be written from a perspective, whether conscious or not, of what you might call the postcolonial spirit. It would be the same in Australia, I guess, or anywhere that is still wrestling with the consequences of colonialism, with those imposed power structures. It would be true of all the Americas, too, I suppose. All of this was something I was unusually conscious of as I was writing these poems. The theme of Pacific Highways seemed to crystallise these ideas, even though I'd written 'Encounter above the Hurunui' before I got Lloyd's call. Of course, I'm aware that there's a risk that I could be accused of cultural appropriation, particularly in 'L'Anima Verde'. While I was writing it, during a fairly intense week or so, I agonised over that, for a while. But then I decided that I'd just have to live with it. I figured that I was doing my best to honour those stories or, indeed, to keep them alive, even, and definitely not to steal them. Because, while the stories are out there, which is true, they're not simply out there for the taking. But they are out there for the retelling, or remaking into poems. Or, at least, that's what I believe, that's what I hope. You see, we always come back to Hope.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review