Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Brian Turner

Photo / Richard Robinson
Photo / Richard Robinson

The poet, cyclist and activist has just returned from a European trip where he cycled to the top of Mt Veleta in Spain. It's 3400m and the highest point to which you can ride a bike in Europe. He's also just published a book, Elemental. He is 68 and lives in Central Otago.

What perspective does cycling afford that you can't otherwise get?

There's a sense of liberation. You hear more, you smell more.

I get to go to wonderful places. There's also something anarchic about it. You're passing through. In cycling, we talk about flying. "We were flying along." Truly, I go quite fast. I've clocked 96km/h before. With a big nor'wester up your arse, you can go.

How was it cycling around London - are drivers more evolved or considerate than New Zealanders?

In New Zealand we're excessively Orwellian in the "four wheels good, two wheels bad" approach. Though in London, it did get pretty hairy. In Regent's Park, there was a woman in a Porsche who was driving towards me, on my side of the road and I thought "I've got to get past her before she ploughs into me".

I had to hand it to her. She threw it into reverse and was going backwards as fast as she'd been coming forwards. Then to my amazement, she screamed that I ought to f***off.

What strikes you most about New Zealand when you are far from it?

A distressing determination to follow rather than attempt to lead. We elect people who are in bed with the architects of the worldwide financial meltdown. We are in a marvellous position, geographically, to pick the eyes out of things and vow not to make the same mistakes as others.

You write about it, but if you were a painter who would you most be like in terms of depicting the Central Otago landscape?

This is treacherous but I think I'd like to be a French impressionist. Cezanne, maybe.

When do your tyres go flat, creatively?

When I'm not producing anything. I don't see myself as particularly creative. I do believe that anything worthwhile is hard won.

What do you have faith in?

That emotion and reason will get you to a place of genuine feeling. I have faith in that. Vulnerability is what I've felt most of the time. Confidence is hard to grasp. I've always felt insecure in most circumstances. I've had to learn to present myself so that I didn't appear as vulnerable as I felt.

What does poetry have over other mediums?

Precision, insight and illumination through rumination. There is this interplay of sound and sense, of form and content. Writing is a discovery. Every now and then I say, "I didn't know I thought that, but I'm pleased I was able to say it". I do think it's the poet's job to speak of the society in which they live. You need to stick your neck out and engage in public debate. You risk pissing people off, of course.

You lost a notebook full of your prose and ideas while in London. Were you gutted?

I've come to the thinking that you can't do much about what's happened. I was pissed off. I'd written a lot while I was there. I know there was some gold in there. But mostly, it was tripe. None of us are wholly original. T.S. Eliot said "bad poets imitate; good poets steal". You've got to be fairly well up yourself if you think that you're the best.

If you were one of the elements, which would it be?

Water. You can travel a long distance and get up to the sky and come back down again. You can get to the headwaters and have a rollicking time. You can stop in the eddies here and there and warm yourself in the sun.

What smell do you remember as a child?

Grandma's cheese scones.

You're a political animal. What advice would you give Anton Oliver if he were to venture into politics?

I wouldn't presume to tell Anton what he should or shouldn't do. I love inter-generational discussion or chat, though. I wish there was more of that. I wish we didn't consign our parents' and grandparents' generation to a container or a box and say, "we're not interested in what you have to say". Anton and I have a great relationship. He loves a contest. He wants to know what you're thinking and he's prepared to challenge you on it, too. He wants to do more than cherry-pick. He is clever, generous and warm-hearted.

What haven't you done that you ought?

Well, I haven't been able to bring down the Government. I think one ought to try. To be a dissenter is to be courageous. I always admire those who put their hands up and speak truth to power. There's a lot of complacency in my generation.

- NZ Herald

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