’s latest poetry collection, 84-484
, released earlier this year. In an interview first published in Sport 31
, DAMIEN WILKINS spoke at length with the poet and novelist about writing, drinking, and other necessities.
* * *
I INTERVIEWED Geoff Cochrane in August 2003 at his Berhampore flat, where he lives alone. It’s a small one-bedroom place in a block of flats set a few metres back from a busy road. The traffic lets up at around 4am. Geoff moved here ‘for a weekend’ – that was about ten years ago.
We sat in his living room which is also where he has his bed. He uses the other room for his writing room because the walls are too thin to allow him to sleep well in there. He works on an electronic typewriter – a source of some anguish to his publishers. A computer was trialled once and rejected – a gesture completely in keeping with his work, which can be both stubbornly austere and wonderfully witty.
Beside his chair there is a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
, and Canadian poet Anne Carson’s Men in the Off Hours
, borrowed from the public library. I ask him how he likes the Carson and he has an instant quote from it: ‘“Penguins topple like astonished dice.”’ Geoff grins at me. ‘And you think, do they? And then you think, of course they do! That’s real writing.’
He smokes roll-your-owns throughout the interview, spreading a piece of newspaper on his lap to catch the spilled tobacco.
The clipped stylishness of his writing is also evident in his talk. He speaks in full sentences and with such care that you sometimes think he’s reading from something. What he’s reading from is, of course, his own mind – a place you feel he’s lived in to an extent that makes our own mental habitations begin to seem transient, a bit half-hearted. Another way of putting it might be to observe that Geoff owns his ideas while we only seem to rent ours. His conversation has the range of a voracious reader and the depth of some voracious living. He is a provocative commentator on both activities.
Still, perhaps his most arresting statements come when he is considering writing, its folly and its power. It’s difficult to think of another New Zealand writer who could formulate the following notion: ‘Whatever one writes is conditional. And it’s probably sweeter and more replete for being conditional – is it not?’ The Cochrane tone is one of the great pleasures in our literature – and somehow sweeter (to borrow his word) for appearing not to be part of that literature.
Despite his own misgivings when we took a break in recording (‘You don’t think I’m being too guarded, do you?’), what is striking about this interview is Geoff’s generosity in the face of some fairly objectionable questioning. At times the interviewer seems to presume an intimacy (‘How’s your sex life, Geoff?’). Actually, though we’ve met several times over the last few years at bookish things, we’ve never spoken together for more than a few minutes.
My only defence is that my interest and intense admiration for Geoff’s work made me think that everyone would be gripped by such inquiries – or at least by the responses they would draw. I still believe that. And I don’t care to hide the evangelical push behind the appearance of this interview in print. Geoff Cochrane’s continuing obscurity as a writer may appear as a ‘mystery’ to the man himself; to those of us who’ve read him, it’s something like a cruel and stupid joke.
My other defence for prying is that I love a good story and Geoff’s full of them.
* * *
DAMIEN WILKINS: Your work is studded with references to writing as a profession, as a life choice, and these references carry a fair weight of self-deprecation or ambivalence. The central character in Tin Nimbus, your first novel, says that ‘all writers are fools, their choice of profession proves that’. And in Blood, your second novel, there’s this observation: ‘The decision to write is formed of an acrid pall, the smoke from the ruins of manlier aspirations.’
Can we start by talking about how you see the business of ‘being a writer’ – was it a choice for you? Were there ‘manlier aspirations’?
GEOFF COCHRANE: Absolutely. I was always going to be an artist of one sort or another. As a kid I painted and I drew and I acted and I sang. And I’ve always regarded writing as being an extension of the activities of painting and drawing. You use implements, you arrange words into various shapes on the page. But this business of feeling a kind of difference or inferiority because one is an artist in this community is inculcated into us fairly early. My father was a frustrated painter.
DW: What was his job?
GC: He joined the TAB in 1952 when it was inaugurated. But earlier than that, when the war broke out, he served overseas in the Solomon Islands and so on and when he came back and tried to resume his draftsmanship and become a commercial artist, he found he was a man among boys really and his ambition withered.
Men of his generation took a very black and white view of their responsibilities as men. When Peter McIntyre, who’d been a war artist, made the decision when he came back from the war that he was going to turn himself into a professional painter, his decision was regarded as being frivolous – which I find very interesting. And I have always felt myself that in a sense art as an activity, writing as an activity, is somewhat frivolous. I mean there are more adult things one can be doing. I was six weeks into the writing of Tin Nimbus
when it struck me like a thunderbolt that there really are few activities as essentially un-adult as writing a novel – this extended fiction that as the writer you have to inhabit for however many months it takes you.
DW: So why do it? Why not stop at the point you have that insight?
GC: Well, because it’s fun. It’s a complicated sort of fun, isn’t it. And work, in inverted commas, is such a horrible, horrendous thing to have to do. And so I stop writing and I do precisely what? What is it that the world requires of me? Does the world really need yet another 52-year-old 10-stone builder’s labourer?
DW: Which brings us to something I wanted to ask you about. In that passage I quoted from Blood, Abel Blood
goes on to say: ‘I really want to refuse to eat or work, to deny the world my slightest collaboration, to let the years expend themselves while I swig my life away in some dim bar.’
GC: It’s very good, isn’t it?
DW: Yes it is. So this spirit of refusal is behind the desire to write?
GC: Writing is certainly, for my part, an expression of my somewhat contrary nature. But the passage you cite, I glimpse in that the tail-end of the comet of depression and unhappiness that was really my lot until I wrote a couple of novels.
DW: Well the tail end of that quote is of course drinking and that brings us to, I guess, what looks like, from the outside at least, the central fact of your life – your alcoholism. These days we’d tend to talk about a genetic predisposition towards addiction but are you suggesting that there was a philosophical component to the drinking? I wonder if you could take us back to that life: Wellington in the 70s. What was it like? The novels seem to suggest a scene, certain rules of conduct, a special lingo even. But I’m aware in asking that question that I’m treating Blood
, say, as a documentary work – is it?
GC: The difficulty I had with writing both Tin Nimbus
was that if I told the truth about my own experiences, I wouldn’t be believed. Had I written an autobiography, people would have said he’s made this up and he hasn’t done a very good job either! He can’t really expect us to swallow this.
I seemed to lead a sort of negative version of the charmed life. Things happened to me.
But alcoholism results from the convergence of all sorts of factors, and you’re asking me really to what extent I consented. Now Dylan Thomas, when he was a boy of nine, said something interesting in this context. He was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. And he said ‘the drunkest man in the world’. Now I understand that. I can understand how, surrounded by merry drunken uncles and plenty of drinking, as one is given an Irish Catholic background, one can look upon heavy drinking as being quite an engaging sort of occupation.
DW: What about this business of there being a drinking scene. As it appears in your fiction, this is not an isolated existence. This is actually a community, isn’t it?
GC: Yes. Centred around the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel in Wellington.
DW: And using a kind of special language. At some point you feel those novels are behaving like fantastic versions of something because of the way people speak to each other. Is that how people spoke?
GC: One could go into the Duke of Edinburgh and see there a special stratum of society – there were a certain number of dropouts who worked as window-cleaners and postmen and they had degrees. There was a sense in which they were withholding their labour too – just like Abel . . . like Able-bodied Blood or whatever I called him. And the first thing I noticed about that bar was the way in which everyone spoke – in this special, quite cultured way, and you could learn to do it. You could learn to do it in a week. And if you flew from Wellington to Auckland and went into the Kiwi Hotel in Auckland, you made a remarkable discovery, which was that everyone in the Kiwi Hotel spoke in exactly the same way as the people you’d left behind in the Duke.
DW: This seems to chime with a certain romantic view of the educated drunk, but you’re saying that this was what it was like.
GC: Oh indeed. We read Under the Volcano
by Malcom Lowry, and there were those who made pilgrimages to Mexico to see the locales.
One did join a family. It was extraordinary. And I made friends in those years that I never lost. Of course you had to penetrate it a bit.
DW: You had to drink a lot?
GC: You had to put in a lot of time. You had to attend, you see. More or less religiously. And I like to claim that I spent the last three years of that pub’s existence in it, you know. I would have slept there, had I been allowed to.
DW: Connecting up that point about language – the language of the pub – with your own literary language, where did your style come from? There’s a stateliness, a courtliness almost to your writing.
GC: But the language in the novels is more or less artificial anyway.
DW: So where did that style come from?
GC: I guess I thought it was just a nice quality one might build into a novel.
DW: And were there other Cochrane styles tried and discarded before this one stuck? I’d want to suggest that this quality of voice is in the poetry too. How did it evolve?
GC: I can’t remember. I can think of models that I might have followed, consciously or otherwise, Thornton Wilder being one. Where everything about a work is more or less mannered. Of course I came in for a lot of criticism when the novels were published. If I got a lame-brained reviewer, they were sure to say, ‘These people don’t talk like proper people’. Well they were never meant to.
DW: One of the interesting things about your work – poems and fiction – is that it regards the former drinking life as not really ‘former’ at all but sharply present – so the spirit of renunciation we might expect from the ‘recovering’ person is not really there. In its place there’s this wonderful tenderness towards the people and places who were with you, and a humour too. Can you talk about the ongoingness of these concerns? I mean, there’s no sense in which your work announces that ‘this was all terrible and now we’re moving on’.
GC: Oh it was far from terrible. The results of it were more or less cataclysmic. I’ve probably chosen too strong a word there but they were almost fatal for me as an organism. Now some would say, I guess, that my demise as an organism would have been neither here nor there in the scheme of things but a day dawned when it was something I had to reckon with really.
But maybe I’m taking the piss a little bit when I threaten my reading public with perhaps still contemplating the notion of taking another drink or six.
Of course it isn’t ever over for an alcoholic. There have been blokes who have been fifteen years off the grog and have finally won the Nobel Prize and are now flying to Stockholm and decide to have a gin on the plane. And six weeks later they have lost everything.
DW: Here’s a stanza from ‘Under the Volcano’ (Vanilla Wine
, VUP, 2003):
Not a drop of alcohol
in eleven years,
but still I dream
the same old shame,
the same old prideful shame.
‘Prideful shame’ is very good – you are proud, aren’t you?
GC: Yes. I suppose it has to be remarked at this juncture that I was quite an engaging drunk. I was voluble, loquacious, even eloquent as a drinker. I mean I could pass out mid-sentence – and these were not simple sentences!
DW: Can I ask you about the final lines of ‘Zigzags’ (Acetylene
, VUP, 2001), which is one of your most insistent poems about ‘that time’ – and probably quite atypical in its declamatory style. Here are the lines:
Because I was a poet people died.
Because I was a poet, people died.
Is this the ‘old shame’ part of the remembering?
GC: Well, firstly, I wanted something to fall back on in readings. One discovers, usually at the last minute, that one hasn’t got anything that lends itself to being read aloud. So ‘Zigzags’ means I’ve got something. But I wrote that particular couplet at the risk of being misunderstood because it sounds like quite a self-indulgent sentiment, doesn’t it. Actually it’s merely a statement of fact. As a generation we really were prone to death by automobile and suicide and drug overdose and so on, and a lot of the friends of my twenties did in fact die.
DW: What’s the connection though between that fact and you being a poet? On one reading you’re casting yourself as a watcher of these events?
GC: Yes. No. Yes. But there seems to be more to it than I can explain, doesn’t there?
DW: Your own death of course has also been rehearsed, hasn’t it. Your new collection of poetry, Vanilla Wine
, refers to this moment, and it opens a recent short story, ‘The Tenant’: ‘I died in 1986 at the age of thirty-five.’ What happened and how did it affect things?
GC: I’m an asthmatic. And as an alcoholic my asthma was never properly controlled. In 1986 I developed a massive neuropathy of the legs. No one saw me during the course of 1986 because I was away in a bin learning to walk again. All this thanks to my drinking. The year 1986 was characterised by at least four very serious asthma attacks, the last two of which killed me, in a clinical sense. I had to be resuscitated, intubated, where they put tubes down into your lungs and they inflate your lungs artificially, and they also paralyse you with a thing called curare. So waking up to find oneself totally paralysed with one’s lungs full of tubes is an interesting experience.
For years I carried around a sealed envelope given to me by a doctor, which for some extraordinary reason I never opened. And when I did open it I discovered I’d been meant to give it to my GP. It was a letter from this bloke who’d brought me back from the dead and it described my condition upon admission to Wellington Public Hospital. I found it interesting enough to write a poem about it, and then I was plagiarising myself when I used it again in that story – that’s allowed once or twice in a career, isn’t it?
DW: That’s allowed. While we’re on the topic of mortality, the Australian writer Gerard Windsor wrote an essay about his own work in which he expresses concern, rather wittily but also in earnest, that one of his books doesn’t have enough deaths in it. He says that ‘Looking hard and square at death is, I know, a criterion for me of serious literary worth. I am impatient with writing that doesn’t run to intimations of mortality.’ And I thought about this in regard to your own work. Is there some sense in which you need a death or two in the book to somehow make the book?
GC: Oh absolutely. Surely sitting down to write a novel for instance, you’re going for broke. My experience of writing novels is that one has to throw every fucking thing one has at them in order to make them stand up at all. There’s a sense in which death is one of those available phenomena, like sex and romantic love and so on.
DW: Is it any wider than that though for you? More than just an option?
GC: Well, I’m a broken-down drunk and a lapsed Catholic. I have been going to funerals since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Growing up in the fifties in an extended Irish Catholic how’s-your-father really acquaints one with death at a very early age. And then as I say, people kept dying on me.
DW: I recall you saying once that you regarded being born in New Zealand as something of a disaster for you.
GC: An unqualified disaster.
DW: An unqualified disaster. On that occasion you were talking about some earlier ambitions to write thrillers, and New Zealand couldn’t supply the right goods for the genre.
GC: As a young bloke one conceived of writing a little thriller or murder mystery. But no, you couldn’t, the names of the streets and so on were all wrong, Pigeon Park just didn’t have the same ring as Piccadilly Circus.
One had no hope of becoming a film director, either. Why? Because one was saddled with living in a backwater. One hails from Island Bay or fucking Miramar. I mean, when Geoff Murphy and Bruno Lawrence were making The Tank Busters
, they had to build their own fucking crane – which they made out of wood!
That was something I had to face at the age of eighteen. I was a fairly talented young guy. And I could have gone several ways. But as I said, the possibility of, say, becoming a film director, you know...
DW: But people did though, didn’t they.
GC: Oh not until years later. I mean you had people claiming to be film directors who made documentaries for the National Film Unit. That was your only option.
DW: The other option of course was to leave the country. Have you travelled?
GC: No, I never achieved exit velocity. And my twenty years of drinking was responsible for that. I knew in my twenties that if I got as far as Sydney, I’d never see New Zealand again – that amounted to a conviction. Actually England would have been the place for me. God knows what would have become of me.
I never did feel rooted in New Zealand. That changes as you get older.
DW: That’s really interesting because when I was reading through your poetry, I became aware of an absence, and it was this: there is none of that staple of NZ poetry books, the poem from overseas, looking back. So there’s no ‘over there’ stuff and now you’re saying you never felt you belonged here either.
GC: Well, my trick nowadays is just to say that I’m an international poet. Seriously. And you yourself have set a bit of an example in this regard, for which I see you’re criticised by some wanker* in a recent Listener
, by writing, by pretending to be an American fiction writer, and why not! Why not if it gets the book written.
DW: And if it’s a good book, isn’t that it?
DW: Just staying on this topic. For most New Zealand writers – and particularly poets – there’s usually an orientation one can pick out – some leaning towards or away from certain key figures in NZ lit: Baxter maybe, Curnow, Manhire – but I’m not sure in your case whether this sort of mapping makes sense. Were you aware of other New Zealand poets when you started writing? Did you write ‘against’ anybody, or were there meaningful affinities?
GC: Not really. I had found myself constitutionally incapable of taking New Zealand literature seriously. But this is a generational thing. I belong to a generation that eschewed its own product pretty much. To this day, I meet blokes of my own age who are otherwise quite literate people but who will not, on principle, read a novel by a New Zealander. They simply never get round to it. And I’m ashamed to confess to this but I’m a wee bit like that myself.
In any case, when I began to write verse, you had your monuments, your Curnows, Masons, Fairburns, Baxters and your Glovers, and then you had the rest of them, and poets were a dime a dozen – you discovered this to your dismay. They really were a dime a dozen and one really didn’t distinguish himself from the next. And perhaps I took the somewhat lofty view that I was almost certain to be better than most of them anyway!
Certainly I took Baxter pretty seriously. I could see of course that Baxter was a very derivative writer but that didn’t prevent him assuming quite some stature – even in my book. You had only to spend five minutes in his company to know that you’d really met someone who mattered. I was lucky enough to meet him on a couple of occasions and he made a fucking impression. By that time he was writing the wonderful Jerusalem Sonnets
, and I remember buying the little chapbook called The Junkies and the Fuzz
, and here he was addressing a live contemporary issue.
I was always a little troubled by Curnow’s syntax but I liked him.
DW: Did you go to university?
GC: No. By the time I’d left college I’d had enough. My last year at college was a complete and absolute disaster – a disaster from which I’m really still recovering. No wonder I drank.
DW: What happened?
GC: Well it was the extent of my failure which really I now see resulted from a sort of nervous breakdown, which nowadays would be recognised and dealt with but they did absolutely none of that in those days and I was allowed to leave college, and quite a good college it was too, with nothing.
DW: You mean you didn’t sit the exams?
GC: Oh it’s too complicated to go into but I was already a man among boys.
I was constantly being told I was lazy. It was something I never believed entirely. I think this relates to the alcoholism, this humiliation I experienced as a young man. Auden says somewhere – and I didn’t read this until years later – that art is born of humiliation.
DW: There’s your poem, ‘The Poet’, in which you talk of this, about life being a convalescence: ‘a slow, elated, awed recovery/ from humiliation.’ Let’s move forward to publishing. Through the late 70s and 80s, you started publishing your poems in small editions, where the publication was arranged by friends. How did that work exactly?
GC: Stephen Murphy was my first publisher. I was living under his roof, I think. And for once in my sad life I actually had access to a typewriter. So I sat down and typed up some poems I’d been carrying around in manuscript – or did some gorgeous blonde do this for me? I can’t quite remember! Anyway, Murphy was a great host and these poems were passed around. And Stephen, who had a bit of money – he was studying law – said haughtily, ‘Damn it, I’ll publish!’ And so in the fullness of time that first little volume appeared. It was largely a question of singing for one’s supper, you know.
DW: Had you been sending stuff to magazines?
GC: Well I remember being published by Sam Hunt in something, and Rhys Pasley included a piece of mine in Lipsync – could I have been as young as eighteen or nineteen?
I guess I’ve always been one to do things my way and publishing those little private press books was always a bit of a way of cocking a snook at those people who produced literary magazines. I mean who in Christ’s name reads literary magazines?
DW: In 1992, VUP published Aztec Noon
, which selected poems from those early books as well as a bunch of new poems. This was your first mainstream book – did publication make you feel that you’d ‘arrived’ – was it momentous or did you think, ‘what took them so long?’
GC: I had my last drink in 1989, in a bar in Island Bay. And I went through the Salvation Army Bridge Programme, which would be as good as any alcohol treatment programme you’ll find in the world. And the thing they teach you is to set goals for yourself. So one thing I thought to myself I must absolutely do and as soon as possible is to publish a book of verse with a proper publisher. And I hadn’t been sober very long when a mate of mine, Lindsay Rabbitt, said to me, ‘You’re coming to the launch of such-and-such a book at Unity Books and I’m going to introduce you to Fergus Barrowman.’ Well, that meeting with Fergus Barrowman changed my life really. Because had certain tiles not fallen into place within two or three years of my getting sober then I don’t like to think what would have happened to me. I certainly had the feeling that the machinery had started to tick over for me when Fergus accepted the manuscript of that book of verse which I think he did within a fortnight of meeting me. He’s a wee bit slower these days.
DW: It was seven years until your second ‘major collection’ as it says on the back of the book, came out, Into India
. In that time you were busy writing novels. Was this the long-held desire for fiction finally working itself out? Were there stories lying about? What was the process?
GC: I began writing by writing fiction.
DW: But you were known as a poet.
GC: It’s a damn sight easier to be a poet than to be a fiction writer.
DW: The hours, you mean? The sweat, the labour, the imagining a world?
GC: Well, Sam Hunt says this. You know, he was asked, ‘Why verse, Sam?’ ‘Because it’s shorter.’
DW: But was writing a novel one of these goals you set yourself?
GC: Absolutely, yes. I’d said to myself I was going to sit down and have a serious attempt at a novel. Forget for a moment this nancy notion of writing poems and, you know, do the hard work. My attitude was, at that stage of the game, that you really weren’t a fully adult writer, a legitimate writer, until you’d written at least one novel.
DW: The reception to Tin Nimbus
set a sort of pattern: overwhelmingly positive reviews – real raves – and a shortlisting for the Commonwealth Prize – and hardly any sales. That was 1995. Two years later, Blood
came out. Again the people that read it loved it, but again disappointing sales. How did this affect you as a writer?
GC: It didn’t affect me as a writer but it certainly affected me as a man – it grew me up. You can imagine the sort of unhappinesses that experiences like those engender but you simply have to get over that – or perish. You do that as a man rather than as a writer.
I like to think, you know, that I regard my literary fortunes with a good deal more equanimity than a younger writer could bring to the task.
DW: You wrote other novels after this – which remain unpublished. This is an odd thing to happen to a writer – odd being a rather mild and inadequate word.
GC: Yes but they’re odd novels.
DW: The usual pattern is the writer who begins with the unpublished novels and then graduates to a kind of perpetuity of publishing. What do you think of those lost novels? Are they lost?
GC: I guess my attitude to them is that they’re like the unborn child, you know. They’re the abortions really, whatever qualities they might have or lack.
One of them, Jungle Altars
, is deliberately formless. A rush of blood to the head and I thought, I’ll make my third novel which is bound to be published now I belong to a wonderful publishing house, I’ll make it as formless as hell and with my knack of introducing symmetry within the last few pages, I’ll pull it all together at the last minute and it’ll be fucking wonderful. Well, I doubt that it is. And I guess there’s a lesson here that you abandon your received rules and even those of your own invention at your peril.
I mean the last thing a publisher wants really, and I’m not directing this at VUP, but the last thing a publisher wants is originality. What he wants is a book that resembles another book. They’ve got enough headaches and enough on their plates without having to nut out ways of selling something like Jungle Altars
DW: Can I just return you to an earlier point you made about having this problem, this lack of faith or belief in New Zealand literature – once you became a ‘mainstream’ author, having your work reviewed, appearing in readings and so on, did that attitude change? Do you feel you’re part of something now?
GC: I don’t feel I’ve yet become a mainstream author. To return to a point you made earlier, people who read me like me. I would have a 98 per cent hit rate on that score. But people won’t read me. And it’s a mystery to me. And it probably remains a mystery to my publisher.
I sense a resistance in the media to my name. There is a curious impermeability there surrounding certain organs.
DW: Is that to do with what you’ve called the ‘unfashionable’ things you write about? That somehow alcoholism and that life is not deemed worthy of attention?
GC: Well, there’s that but I think that’s a different argument. I’m talking about the media and it seems to me that the only way to be known to the people who make arts programmes on TV is to be known already.
But you were asking about belonging to a thing called New Zealand literature, and the truth is you can have books published and you can be asked to do the odd reading and still not meet... well, I mean I meet you and I meet James Brown and I meet Greg O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt. But one never meets Maurice Gee, for instance. One never meets Janet Frame. One never meets... I mean the list is endless of the people one never meets.
I remember thinking that when I was first published by VUP that a wonderful literary friendship was going to come of this. But it hasn’t happened. I still don’t have to write to anyone. My afternoons, thank God, are my own. I don’t have to write to any bastard!
DW: Last year, you reverted to type or something, and put out a slim volume of fiction, Brindle Embers
, through your friend Gerald Melling. This is already a cult book – the cult is made up of other writers mainly – I know Greg O’Brien and Barbara Anderson are big fans of the book. It contains some remarkable pieces. What pushed you towards the short form?
GC: I just love it. Look, because no one gives a fuck whether I live or die as a writer, I can do what I like pretty much. I woke up to this fact and it was like a liberation.
You can write a short story, a good one, in a week. And you can finish it in exactly the same spirit as you started it. Consider this: there you are, slaving away on your novel and long before you’ve finished it, your poor fucking novel has died and gone to novel heaven. There’s so much willing involved in writing a novel. All this business of getting people in and out of taxis! You can dispense with that in writing a short story.
DW: Where do you see those pieces of short fiction fitting in your work?
GC: I think, as exercises in style, they are among the best things I’ve ever written.
DW: I’d agree.
GC: That’s terrific then. And the next lot, they’re even better.
DW: So that’s what you’re working on now?
GC: Oh yes, there’s another lot on the way.
DW: And what will you do with those in terms of publishing?
GC: Well, Gerald Melling likes publishing little books and so he’s going to do them. And maybe downstream someone will hopefully collect them.
DW: I’d like to talk about the poetry now, though there are strong connections between the fiction and the poems. What your work offers are several terrific self-descriptions, I guess – I mean of your own aesthetics. Here is one of my favourites, from ‘Postcard’ (Aztec Noon
, VUP, 1992):
I try to craft a thing as big
as a matchbox, as explicit.
There are several things to take from such an image – a matchbox is a rather beautiful invention, isn’t it? A form perfectly suited to its function but it also has a concealed part. I’d like to ask about that word ‘explicit’ – what does that mean for you in terms of the way your poems offer up their meanings? I guess I don’t think of you as a very difficult poet.
GC: No. It’s one of my aims – perhaps it’s the frustrated copywriter in me – but I do believe you’re in the business of communicating. And you had better well bloody hook the reader with the first line and take him at least as far as the end of the first stanza. In my view, if you’re not doing that, if you’re not consciously attempting to do that, then you’re misguided.
DW: But how do you stop the poem becoming too available? When a poem becomes ‘obvious’ does it stop being interesting?
GC: Oh Christ all that, yes. There’s nothing very new in any of this. Transparency and so on. In my day we were reading the incredibly obscure densities of Dylan Thomas and pretending it was all wonderful but really . . . I mean, you didn’t have to read too far into it to know that you’d rather be reading something that did at least offer you a meaning that was, you know, graspable first time round. A poem shouldn’t necessarily yield all its meaning first time round but there again I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t.
DW: Here’s another sort of mission statement:
I write in order to have
degrees of clarity –
if not solutions, legible diagrams.
, VUP, 2001)
‘Legible diagrams’ is lovely, and though it’s not quite what these lines intend, it makes me think of someone tracing your walking route around the city, Wellington – the kind of physical movement that’s often there in the poems. You walk every day, don’t you?
GC: Absolutely. When I think about the act of walking, and it gets my endorphins going, and it keeps me fit – well fit enough to do all that walking – I think of Joyce and what he had to say about walking around Dublin. Most of the time it’s just white noise. What’s going on in your head is just nonsense really. But every once in a while the noise might clear and you might get a line or two, an image, something.
DW: What’s the pattern of your day then?
GC: I rise early. I don’t sleep much these days – particularly if I know there’s an interviewer imminent. I listen to the news on the National Programme, and then when I get pissed off with that, I begin to write. I have the luxury, I’m single, I don’t have anyone I have to respond to, so I can pretty much please myself. When I was working on the novels I was making myself work for at least three hours a day. But writing short stories and poems, you have the luxury of saying, well I’ve done enough now – particularly if you have.
I have to say that as a life, I wouldn’t swap it for anything. It’s a wonderful wonderful life.
And then I have this wonderful walk into town.
DW: Is it the walking that makes you a poet of the weather? There’s a lot of light and wind and sky and rain stuff in the poems...
GC: I like to think of myself as the pre-eminent Wellington poet but no one else has noticed it so far.
DW: We should have a ceremony to announce it.
GC: I should be inaugurated, yes.
DW: One thing that interests me about your work is this remarkable search always for the new word, the new conjunction, I suppose, to get at the effects of light on surfaces:
Deliquescent clouds decoct
the stink of solder and flux. The light
could be said to falter.
(‘Noon’, Aztec Noon
, VUP, 1992)
This is not an everyday vocabulary, is it? It’s not even your average poet’s vocabulary, is it?
GC: Well most poets are scientific illiterates. Why they should be is beyond me. ‘Deliquescent’ is a word with scientific connotations. Interestingly enough, most people misuse the word ‘deliquescent’, to mean the opposite of deliquescent.
DW: Something else going on, if we’re thinking about language, is the inheritance of church liturgy. There’s the wonderful couplet:
Sufficient unto the day
Are the two-minute noodles thereof.
(‘Bunker Bulletins’, Vanilla Wine
, VUP, 2003)
That’s the parodic side of it, but clearly Catholicism has left its residue – can you talk about this? Is this primarily linguistic or is that too narrow? Is there a world-view that still hangs around?
GC: You never get over it. God knows it put us through the hoops, didn’t it?
DW: Well I never had a Catholic education.
GC: Oh, a Catholic education was the pits. I remember reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at the age of eighteen and I thought, Christ, this was written fifty or sixty years ago and he could be describing St Pat’s College (Town).
DW: I remember reading that and thinking this is a real period piece.
GC: I have younger siblings brought up by Catholic teachers who had an entirely different experience to mine.
Catholicism is a huge subject. It’s a bit like escaping from Stalinist Russia, I guess. In this respect Koestler made this very observation. He said you find your way into communism via a few deceptively simple syllogisms and the next thing you know you’re inside a sphere where the walls are made of one syllogism connected to another, and there’s no way out of it.
My way out of it was that the doubts began when I was about twelve or thirteen and then came to a sort of head at the age of sixteen, by which time the battle was a largely intellectual one. And I couldn’t find my way out of the sphere, until I read a little essay by Bertrand Russell called ‘Why I am not a Christian’. In that essay he describes himself at the age I then was, himself inside this sphere and he said that late one night he made the breakthrough. He said that if it was logical to posit a cause without a cause, then it was just as logical to posit a universe without a cause. And that was the intellectual breakthrough that allowed Russell to break from Christianity and allowed me to break from Catholicism.
But one retains a certain respect for the church.
DW: You wrote an essay for Mark Williams’ anthology of NZ writers on Catholicism, The Source of the Song
GC: It’s a nostalgia really. You grow up believing that all your rewards will come in a posthumous existence, that justice will be done in a posthumous existence. If I lost my faith at the age of eighteen, it wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate how much I’d lost.
DW: That comes across in the essay. And there you quote your own novel Blood about your time as an altar boy. You’re trying to get at the heart of the appeal of the church ritual, the consecration of the Eucharist: ‘it had the purity of an equation, the gaunt persuasiveness of a basic sum’ – which might be a sort of descrip-tion of your own style.
GC: I don’t know if I’m in a position to comment. I like what I wrote. You know, you write these things then you forget about them.
DW: In a few of these questions we’ve been skirting that awkward term ‘confessional’. And it seems right now to move from the Church to the confessional, doesn’t it? Robert Lowell features a few times in poems, he’s name-checked. What do you think of the term ‘confessional’: is it useful to you? I guess confessional poetry has a stigma attached to it, doesn’t it?
GC: Well, in New Zealand, you couldn’t realistically set out to be a confessional writer of any sort without being likely to end up on the front page of Truth. It’s too small a community to this day to allow you the freedom of indiscretion.
DW: But aren’t you confessional in terms of holding up your own life for inspection?
GC: Well, I’m holding up a semblance of my life for inspection. There are things I choose not to discuss or touch upon.
I remember saying to myself I would make a wonderful confessional writer but I lack the courage – or, more accurately, my family lacks the courage. When I was writing Tin Nimbus
I had to believe it was going to be published and therefore this was going to be the book that would be posted home to Levin, for the parents to read. Had I been living in New York and my parents living in fucking Milwaukee, I might have had an excuse for not posting it home.
DW: Of course above this issue, we should hang this line, which is one of the funniest lines in confessional poetry: ‘I’m diagnosed as having . . . never mind.’ (‘Milestones’, Acetylene
, VUP, 2001) Does the confessor get sick of his own sins?
GC: I guess.
DW: I mean that line is a joke, isn’t it, against the form.
GC: Is that allowed? From time to time, one gets antsy about one’s work. Occasionally I have a look through Jungle Altars
, one of my unpublished novels, and I think there’s too much sex in it, by half. So there are questions of bourgeois taste here, aren’t there.
DW: I want to come back to sex.
GC: Oh good. But listen, I wanted to say this, to someone or to a tape recorder. You hit fifty and it all hoves into view. Food and sex really become less important somehow, and you find yourself taking a more cerebral pleasure in things. I can sit here watching the most mindless thing on TV and it delights me. But it delights me on a sort of intellectual level. Does this make any sense to you?
DW: A little.
GC: Well, it’ll come. You’re a good ten years younger than me.
DW: In Acetylene
you include poems which are titled ‘Worksheets’, and these appear to be entries from a writing journal, notes to yourself, fragments – and I was interested in why you’d include these.
GC: It relates to a technical difficulty I had which is that I’m fond of writing the short poem, the poem with only a couple of lines. But there’s a limit to the number of poems of only a couple of lines that you can put in a book, and so I just designed a little container.
DW: So these aren’t your worksheets, these are very carefully crafted documents?
GC: Yes but they’re supposed to partake of the disorder that a real worksheet might.
DW: I’d like to quote from ‘This Morning’s Viewpoint’ (Acetylene
, VUP, 2001), which tells the story of an interrupted romance, a botched love affair:
My purpose was to kiss her.
You’d think a man of my age
Might have pulled that off.
Then the last line is: ‘Misery is contemptible.’ Probably I should be cautioned by that title – that this is a viewpoint held for a morning – and yet I want to make more of it. This is a kind of creed, isn’t it, for you? The poems and the fiction might live in reduced circumstances but their tone is never despairing?
GC: No. The tone of the work is never despairing but perhaps one senses that the man might be.
It’s a thing I’ve come to realise as I’ve gotten older that really I am saved in a lot of situations by my sense of humour. And I think I’m a far more ironical writer than I’m sometimes given credit for.
DW: Can I ask about the sequence you wrote on the death of your father, which is called ‘Whispers’ – for many Cochrane-watchers this is one of your best. It’s not simply candour we’re admiring here. For me the heart-breaking details of the squeaky polystyrene coffee cups and the priest eating an ice cream in the cinema complex – these bring the whole situation into focus. Can you talk about this poem?
GC: My father was a long time dying. And I’m dismayed when I see the recent bill – the right-to-die bill – defeated by a lot of complacent politicians. Because in spite of all the talk we hear from clinicians about their wonderful ability to alleviate pain and how no one need die in pain, my father died in agony – and dementia.
I was commuting from Wellington to Levin on a weekly basis over a period of months. And I remember writing an entry in my diary at the time, ‘My father is dying and it’s like watching paint dry.’ And I knew I couldn’t put that in a poem.
Anyway, I had plenty of time to look at the things that were going on around us at the time, stuff that distracted us, I guess. There was a lot of stuff I couldn’t put into the poem. Like the elderly dementia patient who used to sit on the veranda not far from my father’s bedroom and talk to me in the most intriguing schizophrenese. I mean if you paid a surrealist poet they couldn’t come up with this sort of word porridge... it was delightful.
It was an easy poem to write and it’s always a bit astonishing to be told that what you found easy to write is liked more than things which took a long time and were harder. I had little to do but be there.
On the night he died, I’d wanted to go home at about 11.30pm but my youngest brother, who’d recently qualified as a general nurse, pulled into the carpark and I was prevailed upon to stay for another hour. So finally there were five of us in the room and my brother Phillip was monitoring Dad’s pulse and at around one in the morning Phillip said, ‘He’s arrested.’ Just like that. As matter-of-fact as that. Because he had his fingers on his wrist. And we all sat up and took notice. Had I been left alone in the room with him after all those weeks and months of watching his suffering, I would have missed the moment at which he actually died. I would have missed it.
DW: Your family have read the poem?
GC: Presumably. You never know what people read and what they don’t.
DW: But you felt no compunction about publishing.
GC: I’ve kind of gotten over this. I think on the eve of the publication of Blood
, had I been able to stop it, I would have. Greg McGee said the same thing about Foreskin’s Lament
, had he been able to stop it, he would have done so. I think by the time that poem about my father appeared, I’d toughened myself up a bit.
DW: To return to the Catholic essay there’s something else I’d like to pick up on as a way into talking about sexuality, which is pretty central to your work, isn’t it?
GC: Well, sex is, yes.
DW: Sex, okay. In that essay you write that ‘I seem to myself to have been always sexually aware and active as a child’. And this observation comes immediately after you’ve quoted a piece of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
, which depicts hell as millions of rotting, stinking corpses. It’s a vivid and troubling conjunction – what did you mean by it, and what did you mean by the sexually active child?
GC: When I read Freud I took issue with what he calls the latency period. I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t sexually aware, when I didn’t have sexual feelings, and I couldn’t, for that matter, remember a time when I wasn’t at least trying to be sexually active.
Is it possible to reinforce the attractiveness of sex? If it is, the Catholic Church succeeds. Someone else made the observation long ago that Catholics make wonderful pornographers.
DW: Just another of our great talents! But this does bring us to the adult sexuality of the novels.
GC: Kind of a contradiction in terms, I’ve always felt, adult sex.
GC: What could be less adult than sex? It appals me that we’re so keen as a society about reserving unto ourselves the delights of sex. You will be eighteen or sixteen or whatever the age of consent is, and you will be married if at all possible. Capitalism does this to us, of course. Sex is the ultimate reward fed us by the capitalist machine.
Living alone as I do, to the extent that you never get any sex, you never get touched or kissed, which seems to me to be an extraordinary inversion of the pyramid, if you like. I mean it’s easier to get sex – if you’re prepared to pay for it – than it is to get physical affection.
DW: I wanted to ask about the sex in Blood
, which is a source of discomfort to some of your readers.
GC: Is it? Name them.
DW: I’ll supply a list later on. But Abel Blood has sex with Marika in the Hotel St George – and significantly, St Mary of the Angels church can be seen from the hotel room window. The Church again.
GC: I’m not a symbolist.
DW: What I thought was that novel is really an argument for what – intimacy? At one point the narrator makes this plea on behalf of the era as against present aridities – ‘when did this fear of emotional attachment take hold’. And that time he says was a time of ‘sexual amateurs’: ‘We were democratic and game.’
GC: Oh we were. And if my memory serves me correctly the women in the book are very sexually forward.
DW: Is that book then a sort of act of nostalgia for a better time?
GC: Well, we had it all really. We did. We had it all. We had the liberation of women. Women could behave... they could be as randy as sailors. I mean it put an entire generation of men at a disadvantage really because we never learned how to seduce women – we didn’t have to. Women came to us. All we had to do was wear our flared jeans and grow our hair long and the women came to us. I mean the sex I had in my twenties... I get none nowadays but, you know... it was on for one and all. And it made me like women a good deal more than I previously had.
DW: I wonder whether the readers who respond negatively to the book read it as a sort of male fantasy?
GC: Oh, no fantasy about it. Oh no no no. There was this sexual generosity at work. I mean everyone got some and it didn’t seem to cause much misery.
DW: The intensity of the language around sex has another motor, doesn’t it? Abel Blood is no longer a ‘player’ in the ‘sexual zone’, as he calls it: ‘The grim and the disappointed – those starved of life by life – they don’t have a card, you see, their voices have the wrong timbre and won’t do the trick.’ He talks about his own ‘bitter sexual isolation’.
GC: Which if you are sexually isolated, you do experience this deep bitterness – in your forties, which I was when I wrote that book.
DW: And later on, there’s one of the most remarkable passages of ‘confessional prose’ when he talks about the ‘risible error’ of writing at such length: ‘the celibate have time on their hands’; ‘For at the most dry and candid level of myself, in my most sober but unflinching heart, I know I’m in a condition of retraction or withdrawal, a state which confers a bleak social abeyance.’ I’m risking a hopeless reductiveness here but does Abel’s declaration capture at least one of your own moods? ‘Retraction’? ‘With-drawal?’ ‘Abeyance’?
GC: I think it’s fair to say that Geoff Cochrane was in that position in his forties. My situation now hasn’t changed but I have changed. It matters less to me. Whether that’s because I’m getting older and my hormones are not so clamorous any longer, I don’t know. It’s interesting to note that by the time a man is sixty, he has the blood testosterone level of a nine-year-old boy. You don’t get this impression from watching television, do you?
DW: So you’d rewrite that book now, or it would be a different book now?
GC: That’s always the way. Whatever one writes is conditional. And it’s probably sweeter and more replete for being conditional – is it not?
DW: Yes. And now you’re the poet who ‘smiles at babies in supermarket aisles’.
GC: Something of a comedown, yes.
DW: Does this mean you’re getting happier?
GC: Look, I’ve got bad news for all those of my readers who are in their thirties and forties. It’s almost inevitable that you will get happier.
At the age of eighteen, I thought, due to a constellation of circumstances I appeared to be at the centre of, that the only moral thing I could do would be to shoot myself or to throw myself under a train. I was in an intellectual cul-de-sac, driven by feelings of unutterable sadness really. I guess the point I want to make is that I can’t conceive of being in that same situation ever again. I can conceive of myself being in the position of the Roman senator played by Charles Laughton in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus
who simply realises that his world is about to fall down around his ears and climbs into a tepid bath and slits his wrists – but that’s another situation entirely.
DW: Let’s end on the big note, the ‘what are we all here for’ note... There’s an interview with the American essayist Joseph Epstein in which he recalls a review written by Philip Larkin of one of Epstein’s books of essays, and Larkin wondered who needed them, these essays of Epstein – ‘surely a case of supply rather than demand’ – which is a great line, and also in its sourness dispenses a truth. Who needs these poems of Cochrane’s? Who needs any writer’s work? I wonder as a writer and a reader what it is you use literature for? Aesthetic bliss? Moral guidance? What?
GC: Distraction. Though you get happier with the years, you less and less frequently experience anything resembling bliss.
Martin Amis talks somewhere of the various complicated pleasures we derive from reading. And the pleasures we derive from reading are akin to the pleasures we derive from writing, though for me... and I think the interview began somewhere in the vicinity of this assertion: I’m a maker of things. I was born to be a maker. If I wasn’t a maker of poems and stories, I’d be a painter, and if I wasn’t a painter, I’d be a maker of... letterboxes or something. There’s a distinction in kind here between the intellectual and the artist, and I’m quite happy to be identified as belonging to the latter group.
There is an extent to which one has to fill one’s time on earth with a more or less meaningful activity and I very much like what Kingsley Amis said and maybe we should let him have the last word. He said, there is no point to existence, but there is a point to art.
‘Geoff Cochrane: Interviewed by Damien Wilkins’, is courtesy of the author and Sport 31: Spring 2003. ‘84-484’, published by VUP, is available in book stores.
» Image source: cover, Sport 31