Remember those years, probably in your teens, when you thought anything was possible? The halcyon days when, despite the fact you didn't have much money and worked in a minimum wage job, you were certain you'd make a great and lasting contribution to the world that might earn you fame and fortune? Because, they say, fortune favours the brave?
Dominic Hoey remembers them well, so well that's he named his latest poetry collection – his third – I Thought We'd Be Famous, packing it full of raw, yet tender, poems. They survey a life spent chasing dreams, perhaps not quite achieving them but keeping on keeping on and, eventually, settling into his own – heavily tattooed – skin. It's shown in poems like the brief but thoughtful I Can't Light A Fire But I Can Write You A F***ing Cool Poem About Lighting A Fire:
the poets went to the beach
they had to catch a bus because none of them could drive
it was cold but they didn't know how to light a fire
so they sat by the water in silence shivering until the bus came to take them home
the next day they wrote the most beautiful poetry about the beach.
"The funny thing about that is I can now light a really good fire," says Hoey, 42. "I was living in a flat that was so cold and no one else could light a fire, so I thought, 'I'm going to learn to do it.' If I hadn't, we were going to freeze. I just take the everyday experiences and try to find a way to make them beautiful or funny or whatever the tone I want."
Not so long ago, Hoey was known as the rapper Tourettes, who released five critically acclaimed albums. Before that, he was an MC battle and slam poetry champion, travelling and performing all over the world. Glamorous as it sounds, he spent much time working in kitchens to save enough to fund his music and poetry and travel.
The kitchens were often cramped, the flats – as he says – frequently cold. There are poems about that in I Thought We'd Be Famous; one, about landlords, has the bitter-edged but wryly observed lines:
when are you sending someone round
to fumigate the feeling of desperation?
It's got into the cracks in the floors
And the rats in the walls
Are planning something
When he ran out of money, it was back to work in hospitality. There's a whole section called A Low Rent Magic where Hoey writes of performing, unemployment and losing jobs – "I lost my job recently looked for it down the back of the couch but couldn't find it anywhere" – but persevering even when all seems lost. Because that, he believes, is one of the most important things of all.
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"The title of the collection – it's not so much about being nostalgic," he says, over a beer in a Mexican restaurant in Mt Albert, "because I think that's about a longing for the past. This is more of a reflection about growing up with not a lot and being surrounded by creative people who were also poor. Because of that and the barriers that exist, so many people I knew didn't do what they could have done and that's a loss not just to themselves but to the arts community of New Zealand. There are a lot of talented people out there but they're working in factories and kitchens and not doing what they're best at.
"How did I do it? I just kept going – keeping on is so important – but I also had a lot of luck. When I was writing my novel [2017's Iceland], I had a flatmate who could get me a cheap flight to Iceland. All along there's been stuff like that but also what I've been doing most of my life is now more in vogue."
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He says he doesn't rap anymore because he's old and that would look foolish. Instead, Hoey concentrates on writing and publishing. He and friend Samuel Walsh started their own publishing company, Dead Bird Books, to ensure writing for a wider range of people can be seen and heard - and youth work.
Hoey, who struggled at school because of dyslexia and dyspraxia, says his parents were big readers who read to him. His own desire to take on the world through words developed early. He wrote his first poem when he was 12 and says poetry has been the most consistent thing in his life ever since.
As he got older, he drifted into spoken-word poetry and, almost a natural corollary, rap.
But Hoey recalls organising slam poetry events and inviting friends who would come along to make up the low audience numbers. And think it was all a bit odd. "But now I go to events and there's like 600 people there, so it's really changed," he says.
And his own life has changed, too. He was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a rare and painful arthritis that fuses together bones in the spine and sometimes affects the lower back. Hoey spent months in bed and long periods of being misdiagnosed. The fears and frustrations – there all in his book in poems such as A True Story That Is Also a Metaphor For My Experience With The Health System.
But asks him if there was just one thing he could change about this life and he doesn't want his health restored. Instead, he wishes that the work he does as a youth mentor, through places like The Kindness Institute, was better funded.
"I didn't particularly have a fun childhood – and it took me a long time to write about it – but the work I do shows me a lot of people have it worse than I did. I don't know where I'd be without being able to create but I don't think I'd be in a very good place if I wasn't writing and performing. It was the only thing I got validated for from a very young age so I gravitated more towards it."
He likes working with young people, encouraging them to use art to express themselves.
"What do I tell them? It depends who they are but sometimes it's just, 'Keep going because you've got talent but you need to develop it.' Other kids might not have that natural talent but they've got ambition and drive and they're motivated, so I tell them my story and say, 'Don't listen to if people tell you can't do it or you feel you can't because, really, anyone can do anything.'"
I Thought We'd Be Famous by Dominic Hoey (Dead Bird's Books, $25) is available now.