The writer C.K. Stead is the new poet laureate which I, for one, am really quite chuffed about. I'm fairly sure he is too although, as effusiveness is not in his nature and "chuffed" unlikely to be in his vocabulary, I did rather have to wring it out of him. I already knew this and so it was silly of me to attempt to get him to tell me just how pleased he was. I said: "You really wanted to be the laureate, didn't you?" He gave me one of his long, cool looks and said: "Well, I'm certainly not averse to the idea. Ha."
He said: "I suppose it's just a form of recognition. I don't want it all that much! Ha! I wouldn't have, you know, ground my teeth and been furious if it hadn't come to me, ultimately."
It means that, for two years, he's "a New Zealand poet; not the New Zealand poet". Oh, what rot. I persevered. Surely he can be, for two years, the best New Zealand poet. "I mean, that's only true or false, if it's true at all, on the page." He is a very good-natured fellow, but I know (or should, by now) when I'm beaten so: Shall we settle for saying that it's very nice to have the laureateship? "It's very nice. It's very acceptable."
I don't really know what it is that a poet laureate does except to be a sort of PR person for poetry. We agreed that the laureate can be the sort of laureate he or she decides to be, so I have very high hopes for a lively laureateship, at the very least. Some people find him difficult, or abrasive, which I have always thought he didn't much mind but he says that's not right. But: "I wouldn't like to be thought bland" which is funny because nobody would ever accuse him of that.
I do look forward to his laureateship poems. Will he write an ode for the Rugby World Cup? "I might write a poem if we lose."
Anyway, I am very happy for him (one of us has to get carried away here) because I like his poetry very much and I have long liked him very much. We are not friends, exactly, but we are friendly and, I think, fond of each other. And, of course, I'm flattered that he seems fond of me. We email each other from time to time. He writes very funny emails but I'll have to wait until he's dead to share them because they constitute biography and he is fond of saying nobody had better attempt one of those until he is dead. He has very kindly invited me to various events - book launches and to a council do where he was made A Distinguished Citizen. I have also, twice before, attempted to interview him. I say attempted because he is very good at being interviewed. He claimed that he would look forward to another attempt with "faint apprehension" and later, in an email, claimed that my "steely eye" made him apprehensive. He has a sharp and sly sense of humour which I enjoy. We both know that there were two sets of steely eyes in the room. I like steely-eyed people.
So for all of those reasons I am pleased that he has got the laureateship. I was also, I said, ever so slightly miffed that he had got it this time round when he didn't get it the time (in 2011) I nominated him. I pretended that this was his fault for helpfully (or not, as it turned out) supplying a few words in his favour: "No other poet, I believe has so little hair - this will help it grow." This was presumably - he has forgotten all of this - a reference to a profile I once wrote of him. I made reference to another profile of him in which there was an unattributed reference to the fact that his old mates call him Old Baldy. In my one and only feat of investigative journalism, I managed to find out that this anecdote had been supplied by one of his old mates, Kevin Ireland. The new poet laureate, who was then "a young 71-year-old", when asked for a list of people I might phone for stories about him, said that they were all dead. Amazingly, now that he is 82, these dead friends appear to have come back to life now that they are not required for story telling. I asked who was at his inauguration for the laureateship and he said: "Kevin Ireland and Peter Bland and Graeme Lay and Roger Hall and Hamish Keith and Ngila [Dickson]. And then a lot of family. Quite a distinguished group really." (He had invited me and said he hoped I could come because there would probably be only about five people there. Ha, ha.) What I think I really said, in a few words in his favour, was that he might, just possibly, be a provocative poet laureate. I still hope this but I can see that I am perhaps not the person to ask for a few words in one's favour. And I didn't tell him because he gets a tokotoko, which is a carved talking stick, as laureate and I don't want him coming after me with it.
Anyway, and hooray, not least for another reason to go and see him at home. And so now here we are again, in the lovely house in Parnell where he lives with his equally lovely wife Kay. He showed me a very sweet poem he'd written about Kevin Ireland's (third) wedding. I like going to his house and I like that you can peek into what is now the poet laureate's house from the street and see the bookshelves and the art and think: That is just the sort of house the poet laureate should live in. It is comfortable and very orderly and it is a brainy house, somehow. It is also a very calm house - designed for thinking in, you think.
We were talking about cats. At the Auckland Writers Festival he read a poem about a now dead cat called Zac the Knife: "Zac of the goldfish eyes/ and nice-smelling fur/ who when I had a problem with a poem/ slept on it." I had sent him a picture of my cat, using a copy of a collection of his poems, The Red Tram, as a pillow. He liked the picture; and he does like cats but he likes dogs even more, although he hasn't had one since he was a boy because "in a modern city, they're too hard to manage". He said about dogs in general, and about his daughter Charlotte Grimshaw's dog, Philip, in particular: "That's the great thing about dogs, of course, they're just so marvellously demonstrative." I said that is just what I don't like about them. He said: "Aah. Cats are sort of stand-offish. Actually, no. You can get cats that are very attached to people and others that are almost indifferent. There are some cats around here that see me coming and come running up to me, and other cats see me and they run away." I suggested that the running away ones might have learnt of his reputation. "Ha, ha! I don't think so. I think it's their temperament, not mine."
I said: "How is your temperament?"
He said: "My temperament is fine, as far as I know. I haven't had any complaints." Has he not? "Well, if you're talking about a lifetime, I've had complaints about my temperament." Just a few? "Yeah. Just a few."
He gets into trouble over his opinions and, he said, this is an aspect of his temperament (if opinions and temperament are the same thing) that he addressed at the writers festival. "And I said in the interview: They were bloody good opinions but I was probably too often too emphatic, too excited, too forceful, you know, in stating them. That's all. So I suppose that's a kind of acknowledgment of fault." Which is not the same as saying that he doesn't think he should have expressed his opinions. "No. I said they were bloody good opinions!"
The last time (although undoubtedly not for the last time) he expressed an opinion that got him into trouble was over the "Roast Busters" affair which he waded into, after returning from overseas, by writing an ill-received letter to the Herald. This was followed by a letter, published on a website, written by Charlotte Grimshaw, in which she signalled "her disagreement" with C.K. Stead, who of course is her father. He now says: "It was like lumbering into a conversation ... It was not a good idea, really, to venture an opinion at that point in time."
What I was really interested in was whether he and Grimshaw had fallen out over this but he said no, not at all, and that it was "entirely amiable ... and thereafter I said not another word about it". It was also "entirely proper" that she referred to him as C.K. Stead and made no reference to that fact that he is her father. "Well, it was appropriate because she was writing as Charlotte Grimshaw about C.K. Stead."
He said: "I wouldn't like to be thought to be insensitive. I don't mind being thought to be frank. The word Allen Curnow used to use of me was 'candour', which is quite a nice word because it's a nice way of saying frank."
He thinks he is "actually quite diplomatic, really. I think so. Don't you?"
I think he can be. I know he can be charming because he is always charming to me. I think. He once told me - God only knows how this even came up; and neither of us can remember - that I wouldn't suit being thin! Is that diplomatic? It might be. It might even be charming. He said: "Well, you're not fat!"
He doesn't examine these matters of temperament too closely. "Well, you're forcing me to, aren't you?"
I was trying, of course, but who was I asking him to examine? Karl, or C.K. Stead? I know Karl, a bit, but I probably confuse him with who I think Karl Stead is in the novels, or the poems, of C.K. Stead. I had another go, through the poems, as autobiography. I was rather predictably out-steely-eyed on that attempt. "Anyone is free to speculate beyond the fiction, but nothing more," he emailed later. I had asked about a poem in which he asks for trespasses to be forgiven. What, I wondered, were the trespasses? "Oh, ha, ha," he said. "They're none of your business!"
It is good fun, presumably, for a poet, to have people speculating beyond the fiction. "Well, it's not so much good fun as it's just good tactics!" And that will do nicely for the last line of an interview with the poet laureate who is as good at tactics in interviews as he is in poems.