Ian Wedde has been many things in his working life - a postie - "I wore a funny grey uniform with silver buttons" - tannery worker, dramatist, teacher, novelist, curator, editor, art critic - but it's his five decades of poetry - presented in an updated and expanded Selected Poems - which prompts our meeting in a cafe around the corner from his Ponsonby townhouse, where he lives with his second wife, crime novelist and screen writer, Donna Malane.
The 330 page book begins with the heady Homage to Matisse -
twinkle like some vibrant old
men I know whose destructions
will lift up love & wonder from us all
written when Wedde was in his early twenties and ends with 2013's Shadow Stands Up, which finds Wedde on Auckland's green Link bus contemplating life, family, language and those early days
the year I packed up and went
in search of the life I was
just going to go on having
the time of my life with,
But when I suggest that this poetic voice - sharp, enquiring, celebratory - was formed early, he squirms a little.
"In some ways, yes. But I'm not a great subscriber to the idea of Voice because I think my Voice is also a bunch of other people's voices that I've read or heard... and also my voice will have changed. I'm 70 now, I was 20-something then - I mean - come on!"
Poetry for Wedde has never been a top-down process, "Responsibilty is to keep/ the ability to respond" - reads a quote (poet Robert Duncan) at the start of Wedde's Sonnets for Carlos (1975) - and his delight and interest in language only ramps up in the later work.
"For me it was, and is, always a curiosity about perception; how you can learn from what the senses tell you? That's gone on being an obsession; and how that connects to memory, because what I didn't know then, and now know more about - is you perceive something and your memory retains it for a short time, maybe a few seconds - and you're taking in seven or eight things at a time, but it's somewhere, and how on earth, and in what form that re-emerges is what fascinates me.
"I've always believed that language is a kind of secret agent. Sometimes, in a very methodical way, it will bring back a recall and you'll be able to write it down in nice, clear articulate prose - but the great thing with poetry is that it has this little edge of anarchy - what you perceive becomes vivid and something else will be triggered by that, and then, who knows? And the language itself may not be dutiful, it won't necessarily do what you tell it to - it'll swerve around. And I love the way those swerves happen, where they take you - because there's nothing more boring than writing which trudges efficiently down the page, that gives you the experience without the swerves."
Murray Mexted - who I've long thought was the poet of sports commentary - used to say "oh he's poetry in motion", speaking of some enormous front row forward charging downfield - and that idea of poetry as being a quality, or a presence, is everywhere you look.
When he's in poetry writing mode he jots down ideas and images in a notebook.
"Any little thing you see you don't know if it's going to be useful or not - because this (points to his brain) this won't do it... I mean the fact that I woke up in the middle of the night and heard Donna in a dream saying "shadow stands up" - that was spooky - so I wrote that down and had that in my head everywhere I went. And then I saw it - walking out of the Link bus, I saw it happening, and it came to me in all sorts of other things. And in that last verse where I'm thinking about my parents who died when I was quite young there was a rigger in a fluoro jacket in Victoria Park - he was holding a bar of scaffolding and, of course, he was this way up, but the immediate impression you got was that you could reverse him and he became this brightly coloured bird hanging on to a bar - but he was standing up and casting a shadow of himself. It's those little things that you couldn't sit down and think. You have to have one of those potions, one of those magic language things, and you have no idea what it's going to do."
Increasingly in the later work it's this embrace of the everyday which interests Wedde.
"Murray Mexted - who I've long thought was the poet of sports commentary - used to say "oh he's poetry in motion", speaking of some enormous front row forward charging downfield - and that idea of poetry as being a quality, or a presence, is everywhere you look."
Today he's the archetypal distinguished NZ poet - our poet laureate from 2011-2013 - and his work has claimed pretty much every award, fellowship and honour going - but back in the 70s Wedde was considered a rebel along with poets like Alan Brunton, David Mitchell, Mark Young and others. They published in the short-lived but very influential Freed.
Their work a marked departure from NZ's rather dour provincial canon.
Wedde, not one prone to nostalgia, has conflicting emotions regarding the anthology Big Smoke (2000) which focused on this generation.
"Look, I think it was an amazing piece of work, but it did two things which seemed to me askew. One was that it suggested there was a large community of like-minded, similarly motivated people. The reality was very provincial - there were four or five of us up in Auckland, three or four in Wellington - and we didn't know each other. I didn't know anyone but Bill Manhire in Dunedin who I'd met a couple of times; so there were these very scattered groups of writers and putting them all together in Big Smoke was great - it told me what the big cartography was - but it also suggested there'd been this massive unified community and it was never like that. Secondly it suggested that those people who'd been writing then that that was it - and you look at some of those writers, and they went on to do even more exciting and diverse stuff."
He believes the group reflected a growing "denationalised sense of identity" and the beginning of a global culture.
"I mean, I regret it now, but back then I had a real antipathy to a lot of New Zealand writers just because they were New Zealand writers. I was reading a lot of French literature, a lot of contemporary American writing and I had friends in Australia and was interested in what was happening there.
"What I see there now is a full-on investigating drive - a learning how to do this. When I look back at some of that early work I think it's not bad - a lot of energy, a lot of confidence, a lot of exploring. What I notice is I was locked into a self-centered position. I do that much less now; language pushes you into the margin and often suggests something that isn't from a central self."
But he resisted the idea, so prevalent at the time, that open form, or free verse was king.
"I was more interested in how traditional forms could play into that."
Hence 1975's Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos - reprinted in its entirety in the Selected- as is the much-praised and, until now, out-of-print The Commonplace Odes from 2001. Carlos contains 60 astonishing and technically perfect sonnets.
"I started writing it in early '72 when my wife Rose was pregnant with my first son Carlos. We were living in a little stone cottage in Port Chalmers. Prior to that Rose and I were in London - I was thinking of coming home and we heard of this writer's fellowship. I didn't think I had a chance - but I got it and Bill Manhire arranged that cottage. Back then it was a working class fishing port with a couple of good pubs and we loved it until I got into a bit of strife with a chap in Port Chalmers and we thought it was time to go."
The problem involved their dog Japonie who had teamed up with one called Jack who belonged to the local plumber.
"They were accused of driving a couple of two-tooth Romney ewes over the cliff and on to the back beach where they ate bits of them. The sheep belonged to the secretary of the wharfies union whom I was trying to persuade to put me on the seagull list for casual work. He got pretty angry when I refused to have my dog put down (I offered compensation for the sheep). He had some staunch support in the town, so we hopped on the train with Japonie in a dog-box and came to Wellington."
There's also been the odd bit of literary strife. I ask him his view on C.K Stead's landmark 1979 essay From Wystan to Carlos - which anointed Wedde as the leading voice of the new generation (Wystan refers to poet Allen Curnow's son), marking a shift away from Modernism.
"For me the question was more complex than the way Karl put it. I think he was upset that I wasn't - not so much I wasn't agreeing - but that I wasn't grateful for what he regarded as a compliment. And it was, an enormous compliment.
"Karl and I get on well now but we fell out over that, which is a shame. I think what happened was Karl was taking up, as he does, a very clear, condensed position that this was a clear break, and I was going "hang on the last substantial book I published were all sonnets so can we just walk this back a little bit and have a think. It's not that simple...""
Wedde has a new 80-100 page poem, completed on a 2013/14 fellowship in Berlin, tucked away in a drawer.
"I guess its main theme is the migrant experience, but reversed by my being in Germany."
I ask how he knows when to end a long piece like Shadow Stands Up.
"In that case," Wedde laughs, "I just thought - shut up!"
Life today for our finest poet is full - art exhibitions to organise, essays to write - but there's always time for family.
He speaks proudly of his sons - all busy in creative endeavours - his second, Conrad, plays in The Phoenix Foundation - and Wedde rhapsodises about a recent day out with his grandchildren - a visit to the art gallery, fish'n'chips down by the wharf, a trip home on - yes - the Link bus.
"Really, you couldn't ask for a better day."
Wedde's Selected Poems is published by AUP - out 22nd May - $32.99
AUP launches the book at a free event at the Auckland Writer's Festival on Fri, 19 May 2017 3.30-5pm