Michele Hewitson Interview: Ian Wedde

By Michele Hewitson

Our Poet Laureate is 'extremely chuffed' at getting Creative NZ's Berlin Writer's Residency - and the chance to trace his German great-grandfather

Wedde moved to East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh) as a 7-year-old. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Wedde moved to East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh) as a 7-year-old. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In 1870, a German chap called Heinrich Augustus Wedde arrived in Wellington harbour on a ship from which he jumped, with a Danish woman called Maria Reepen he'd met on board and who would become his wife. He was an adventurer and a restless spirit, or so we can surmise. He came from a family of upright German citizens, pillars of the Protestant church, and musicians, of the respectable sort.

His great-grandson, who at 66, may or may not be an upright citizen and a respectable sort (probably, for a poet at least) is the current Poet Laureate, Ian Wedde.

He said, of his musical ancestors: "They weren't crazy rock musicians." No kidding. He may have been kidding and also being just a little dry. You want to watch your Ps and Qs around him. He is a public intellectual, after all. Accused of this, he made a noise that sounded like this: "Pwash! I never asked to be called that." No, well, who would?

He must be one, though, because I had read that he was one. What does it mean? "Well, what I think is meant by it by those who use the term is that you talk about stuff in public, which I have done a bit."

He will likely have to do a bit more of talking about stuff in public because he has just been awarded the Creative NZ Berlin Writer's Residency which is $40,000 and a flat to live and write in and also involves, with writing, having "to front up and be a good Kiwi citizen as required. Which is fine." He doesn't mind that sort of thing. "No, I think it's fair enough."

I had only asked whether he minded that sort of thing because he once said, on the announcement of his laureateship, that he hadn't yet made up his mind whether he was "reticent or lazy", about the challenges of being a public poet.

He misheard this question as restless or lazy and said: "I think they go together. I think you get restless because you've been lazy." I don't believe him about the laziness - in addition to writing poetry and novels, he was the Evening Post's art critic for many years and then took a job at Te Papa as an arts project manager and has just finished a teaching stint at the University of Auckland.

And he was married to the actress Rose Beauchamp for 20 odd years and is now married to the writer and producer Donna Malane who he has been with for 25 odd years (they married "in 2004 or something" because he claims to be a romantic and marrying was "a really sweet thing to do" and also made sense, practically speaking.)

He has five boys - three with Rose, one from another relationship, and a stepson, Donna's child - and two grandchildren and another on the way. So he's had the opposite of a lazy life.

Anyway, he is "very, very, very chuffed. Extremely chuffed" about the residency and so will go to Germany at the end of October and "try and find the old bugger". The old bugger being his great-grandfather who was certainly restless. Other than that he doesn't know a lot about him so he has "made up a lot of rubbish about him".

In his latest collection of poems, The Lifeguard, there is a poem for Heinrich Augustus: He bequeathed his boys those/blue Baltic eyes, and the crooked/front tooth that gives their grins bite/His ghost leans in the window/on nights when the wind chokes/with lit-up plastic bags/There's a sudden smell of/Schnapps and salt in the room/and brined herring with/Estonian dill pickle - herrlich!

Which is rubbish of the wonderfully vivid poetic sort: you can see and smell the old bugger in the room all right.

There is a nice poetic symmetry about his backwards journey to find his great-grandfather and to track down his own restlessness, perhaps. He thinks restlessness probably is inherited (with that crooked front tooth that gives his grin bite.) He enjoys his own itchiness. It is good for grumpiness, he says. He and Donna moved, in 2011, from the huge old run-down boarding house they bought in Wellington because it was all they could afford to the tidy Ponsonby townhouse - which seems like rather a big change of scene, in every sense.

"You've got to shift sometime. You just have to." Golly, do you? What happens if you don't? "I think you become grumpy about things that you should change. It's not hard ... If you're feeling grumpy, do something."

It is quite possible that he comes from a long line of people who have subscribed to this notion. There is Heinrich, and also Maria. What was a young Danish woman doing sailing, alone, on a ship to New Zealand? That's one of the things he hopes to discover and if he can't, he's a writer; he can make up whatever rubbish he wants to.

He is interested in the idea of home. "How do you nail the answer to the question: What is home?" He had an unusual upbringing (that is, it was unusual for most people but possibly not for his line of Weddes.) At 14 or 15, he and his twin brother, Dave, now an air traffic controller, were chain-smoking itinerants for whom home felt like transit lounges in airports - a lifestyle which seems to have determined, in different ways, the directions their adult lives took. They are different in interesting ways and, says the poet twin, in ways "in which we produce something more complete together. He's got a memory for detail, and mine's rubbish".

Thank goodness, then, that he's not the air traffic controller. "Exactly. And thank goodness he's not the writer. He'd get bogged down with detail. I think he's got a very accepting view of life and a capacity for happiness and I think I'm less accepting." And so, presumably, such a capacity for happiness I imagined might make the twin without that capacity slightly envious. But, "no, I'm not envious. No, not really. I'm happy for him."

How funny it is that an identical upbringing (they are not identical twins) can have produced such different beings. And what a funny childhood they had. His parents fled small-town Blenheim life where they lived, with the twins, with his mother's mother, a tough nut. They might have fled to Wellington, say.

Instead they packed up 7-year-old twins and went to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). His father was an accountant who was later shoulder-tapped by the United Nations and went to work in various other exotic places for the United Nations Development Programme.

The boys were sent to board at a God-awful English prep school and, later, a rather good English secondary school and later still, and back in New Zealand, to King's College, from which Wedde was asked to leave for reasons of "incompatibility", which might be another word for unhappiness.

"It was an awful place, a terrible place actually." Dave didn't mind it but he is the more "sanguine" character.

"Dave has always suggested that I was given to being self-pitying and morose." And is he? "Well, he remembers these occasions and I think that was true. I think I was pretty miserable, on occasions."

This might have been good training, because: Does he know any happy poets? "Yes! Sam." Is Sam Hunt a happy poet? I wasn't so sure. But I did like the Poet Laureate immensely for saying that Sam Hunt is a good poet, one he admires for his recall of poetry and his ability to make people love him and poetry: "Which otherwise you would have thought is the kind of preserve of the literary classes and I think that's extraordinary."

The really extraordinary part of his story - and the reason the twins came to regard transit lounges as a sort of home: Their parents pretty much abandoned the boys (that is my word, not his) and after the four happy, running feral years in Pakistan, the family met up only every two or three years. I thought he must really have minded this but he said: "That's a hard question to answer because I think it would be easy to say I had a sort of hard luck story to tell. Because I never saw my parents much."

I thought perhaps his parents didn't much like their kids but that is quite wrong. "Oh, I think they loved us. And they managed to get out and move on and what could be more amazing than to have got your kids into an English boarding school? I can understand how they must have felt about that and I think they were immensely proud of us."

He, on the other hand, went right off himself - or at least right off his writing voice - for a decade from the mid-90s and so stopped writing anything much at all. "I think it was to do with the fact that I started to hear a voice that really irritated me: My own. And that was like: 'Oh, shut up'. That was boring and I thought: 'If I'm bored, how bad is it for the poor buggers who are being required to pay attention?', you know."

A decade is a long time for a writer to not write so you'd think he might have been dismayed by having nothing to say, but he found a sort of solace in writing "yards and yards and yards" of institutional documents while at Te Papa. This seems rather odd, but perhaps not for poets. But who knows? Because who knows what poets are like?

Writing poems is such a mysterious business - and why anyone does it is such a mysterious business; not for the money, because there is none - that I always think poets must be mysterious creatures. He said, about his younger self: "I think I was rather given to melodrama and self-pity." Has he grown out of that? "Probably not."

I'm inclined to think that is more of his rubbish. Or that poets can be melodramatic and self-pitying at the same time as being a perfectly normal and amiable chap living a quiet life in a townhouse in Ponsonby with a clever, funny wife working in the shared study upstairs, pictures of kids and grandkids on the walls (with a Hotere) and a cat asleep on the bed in the sun, who makes coffee and offers a plate of biscuits to a visitor - but whose job involves going off to Berlin to chase a ghost.

- NZ Herald

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