Twelve questions
Sarah Stuart poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions: C.K. Stead

C.K. (Karl) Stead, ONZ, has been called New Zealand's greatest living writer - and also our most controversial. His new book of poetry, The Yellow Buoy, was launched last night.

C.K. Stead: I don't think I'm in the least snobbish about this, but I'm a realist, and an elitist. Photo / Brett Phibbs
C.K. Stead: I don't think I'm in the least snobbish about this, but I'm a realist, and an elitist. Photo / Brett Phibbs

1. Is poetry the most satisfying of your writerly arts?

Yes, it's what makes the greatest demands, gives the greatest feeling of satisfaction when it goes well, and disappointment, or emptiness, when you have periods of drought.

2. Is its small audience a source of frustration?

Not at all. Either Keats or Milton said he wanted "fit audience, though few". And the other (whichever it was) said he wanted to leave "great verse unto a little clan". And Auden said "our readers may be few, but at least they can rune". I write for real readers, not for "everyone". I don't think I'm in the least snobbish about this, but I'm a realist, and an elitist.

3. As a young man you were a protege of Frank Sargeson: which young writers would you consider proteges of yours?

Well, Greg O'Brien, Andrew Johnstone and Chris Price - all successful poets now - were in the Creative Writing class I ran in my last three years at Auckland University, so I suppose there's a sense in which I could claim them.

But would they want that? Only they could say.

4. You joined the Labour Party aged 7 - what's your view on its current state of health?

I was (and am) a great admirer of Helen Clark and still support the Labour Party, and I'm generally "left-liberal", further left of the party on many issues, wishing it was more radical, less cautious, less pragmatic, though I know politics is the art of the possible. The Greens have lost most of their earlier dope-smoking dottiness and now often appear as another party of smart ideas and sound policy, so I think a Labour-Green coalition would be good for us. I find it really dumb that a population which didn't want public assets sold elected a Government committed to selling them.

5. It seems a while since your last literary feud. Are you going soft in your old age?

Oh there's a wee scrap in the new book if anyone is keen to hunt for such things.

6. Did you ever reconcile with Keri Hulme?

Did she reconcile with me? I never had any grudge against Keri. I said The Bone People was a work of genius but I found the nature of her focus on violence against the child troubling; and I also questioned (unforgivably, it seemed) whether only one of eight great-grandparents, a Maori, was enough for her to qualify for a prize that was for writing by Maori. It's a long time ago, and one has learned to accept the conventional wisdom that this was a question I should not have asked - though it must have lurked, unspoken, in many minds. The real question about Keri is when will she stop murmuring imprecations on line and produce another novel?

7. What compelled you recently to speak out about Justice Binnie's review of the David Bain case?

It seemed to me such an injustice was being done to the father, Robin, who was being used as a posthumous lever to get the son off the hook. And I thought Joe Karam had not done David any favours.

8. Is there a novel in that ongoing drama?

Certainly, but I won't be the person to write it.

9. What's the most surprising thing about being 80?

Being 80 is the surprise - the fact of having survived so long.

10. What's your favourite lowbrow pursuit?

Is swimming low-brow? I'm addicted to that. And to movies - not just art-house stuff (including French and Italian) which I love, but thrillers, especially if they can be done without an interminable and unbelievable car chase.

11. What, in your opinion, is the most over-rated aspect of modern life?

Modern life at its worst is four people, two couples, around a table having coffee (with a glass of water of course), each of them reading text messages on a cellphone, and occasionally looking up to tell the others what he/she is finding there.

12. You've written about the stroke you suffered and how it left you terrified you wouldn't be able to read or write again. If that happened again tomorrow, what's the thing you would most like to say today?

Make sure the plug is pulled on the life-support. And thank you for having me.

- NZ Herald

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