On Cross St, the narrow thoroughfare off Karangahape Rd, a man is conducting the type of business not ordinarily seen here.
David Merritt, who might describe himself as "even more gnarly in middle age, grey-bearded and nuggety, creased and crinkled in all the wrong places but pleased", sells poems in beautifully simple booklet after booklet after booklet that, when laid out together, look like the work of a master craftsman. The $5 booklets — each one usually contains a single poem — belie their humble origins.
Merritt, in his 50s, likes to say he is the only man in the world who has figured out what to do with old Reader's Digest condensed books. He transforms them, and a jumble of other abandoned books, to create self-published books and zines with covers constructed from banana boxes. He cuts and shapes them using scissors, glues and staples them together, hand-stamps the titles on to the front of each one and adds a sticker about copyright.
Or copyleft, as is more accurately the case. Merritt wants poems and poetry to travel far and wide, so cheerfully gives permission for all parts of his work to be re-published, re-produced, re-performed, re-distributed and re-transmitted in any form or media… It comes with the line, "acknowledgement is nice".
On Friday, the biggest ever Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day takes place with award-winning poets joining poetry enthusiasts from all over New Zealand in the largest-ever celebration of poetry readings, performances, workshops, and competitions. You'll be able to see, hear and read poetry on public transport, street posters and footpaths, in cafes, bars, bookshops, and libraries and at schools, university campuses, retirement villages, marae, theatres and community centres.
Merritt's work may be among the most read. He's sending "poetry bricks' — each one containing 23 of his poems — to 25 different cities, towns and rural centres around the country. They'll wind up in schools, cafes, libraries, galleries, maybe even park benches and bus stops. When we spoke, at Merritt's Cross Street Market stall, the aim was for each brick to contain notes for "curators" — those who might be in charge of the poetry brick readings at a given venue — and for Merritt to address the poems as and where he found them.
It's quite a journey for the poems but probably not as meandering as his own. One look — a glance, not even a stare — at Merritt tells you he's lived quite a life; everything about him has a lived-in look and a patient poise.
"I must be the only sober old male poet in the world," he says.
Born in Australia, near Wollongong, Merritt's family moved to New Zealand when he was 4 because his mother didn't like snakes. From the time he was young, he wanted to write and found himself editing the University of Auckland's student newspaper Craccum before joining Flying Nun as a band manager and taking to the road. Like a lot of poets, Merritt says there's really no difference between poetry and song lyrics.
He lived a Bohemian life in Dunedin working his way through a variety of jobs, including running small presses, producing his own poetry collections and editing those of others; becoming a father to sons, studying computing and eventually working as a "computer geek". He was employed by internet service providers and even wrote a book about computing.
There were moves to other parts of the country; sub-editing jobs at newspapers and an uneasy relationship with the trappings of consumerism and mainstream society. Merritt acknowledges — partly through his poetry — dark periods of depression, breakdowns and, eventually, deciding to give himself over to a semi-nomadic life of driving up and down the country, writing and distributing his own poems and giving readings.
He maintains an active online presence, an almost contradiction given his is a slow and traditional enterprise; then again, Merritt did — literally — write the book about computing in New Zealand so why not embrace the best of both worlds?
Merritt's published under the banner of a number of small presses: Gung-ho, One Cent and Landroverfarm, his present venture. He says because poetry is often marginalised, it's an art form that needs to be adapted for writing as well as reading to give poems two different lives. Being on the road gives him a chance to read in more venues, or to encourage audiences to read and share his work, but he acknowledges he's never going to get rich being a poet.
"I just perversely picked the hardest career in New Zealand," he says. "I would be better off if I lived in a country that had a culture of poetry and if I hadn't rejected all the things that make a successful career."
He's heartened by the growth in the popularity of poetry, the rising number of small presses and avenues — including online — to get poems into the wider world, and says, while it's a strange and imperfect beast, slam poetry has aided the artform's profile.
"And I like Phantom Billstickers sponsoring National Poetry Day; I think it's a fantastic company for doing this and goes to show that you can be successful and philanthropic."
What: National Poetry Day, Friday, August 24
Where: 130 different events all over New Zealand and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in Berlin. Now in its 21st year, National Poetry Day events include readings with 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards poetry category finalists Briar Wood and Sue Wootton in Auckland and a workshop with winner Elizabeth Smither in Christchurch. All four 2018 Ockham poets, including Tony Beyer, feature in Phantom Billstickers' countrywide super-size Poetry on Posters campaign. For full details about all the events go to nzbookawards.nz