Kevin Ireland, on the cover of his latest book - his 16th collection of poetry - is presented in caricature. He looks a genial sort of geezer, a man who likes a joke. He's wearing his poet's costume: the sports jacket, the friendly moustache, the tousled hair. He's leaning on an enormous glass of red wine. The book is called Airports and Other Wasted Days. This is a title as jaunty as the man who wrote the poems appears to be.
It makes light of the business of poetry. Which is the way the 73-year-old writer likes to present his work. "Life is enriched by indolence. I think of things not done as buried treasure," he writes.
That is a lovely idea, and I don't believe it for a moment. This is, remember, his 16th book of poetry. There have been four novels, two memoirs, a collection of short stories, his indefatigable good works on behalf of other authors. He took up oil painting when he turned 70 and he paints, with great energy, madly whimsical scenes from his life. His paintings once made a woman laugh so much she had to be helped from the gallery. This sounds like the sort of thing he'd make up to point up the sheer absurdity that is his second career as a painter - but he swears it is true. He is careful not to be seen to take himself too seriously.
I'm not quite sure where he fits in on the scale of New Zealand writers and he, for obvious reasons, is not going to be any help there. "Oh, yes, that's for other people to decide. I feel quite secure simply in being published, that's really the most important thing. It would be a disaster for me if one day somebody said 'You're past it, mate. The book's no good and no one will touch it.' I would never have the hubris to rank myself anywhere at all."
I find him living, merrily, which is the way he does most things, in reduced circumstances - by choice, I should hasten to add. He, and wife Caroline, and Sydney, the diabetic and hence very expensive dog, have left their big, white house in Devonport for this smaller house with wood-lined walls in Devonport.
I almost suspect him of moving just so he can make a new joke. It is that he has followed a path the exact reverse of Abraham Lincoln's "log cabin to White House. We went from white house to log cabin."
How he likes a joke. He has the perfect laugh for a teller of jokes: it is a big shaggy, hearty laugh and you hear it most often when he is telling funny stories about himself.
He says that because the dog is so expensive he is reduced to scouring the supermarket aisles in search of the cheapest wine. This is another joke which subscribes to the image of that joker on the book cover. How he likes wine. Good wine preferably, but plonk will do for the poet.
All right, so who is that guy on the cover? "Well, first of all, under the trades description act, I've had a haircut recently and I've chopped a lot of that hair off but it's a very good portrait [by cartoonist Malcolm Evans], isn't it? That's the first thing. And I think that person on the cover is a bit of the confidence trickster. He has that look about him. I wouldn't buy a second-hand car off him, but I'd buy a book of poems off him."
Which is a very nice line, but how can you trust poems written by a man who looks to be a confidence trickster? "I would think, well, that's what I want out of poetry. I want tricks. I want something that is imaginative and tricky and is going to give me a kind of double take."
And would he have any expectation of getting to know anything true about this character from reading his poems? "Yes, you would, I think, think that he liked pleasure, that he was irascible, ha, that he, I hope, has a sense of humour and that he likes what he does."
Anything deeper than that? "I wouldn't like to scratch any deeper. Ha ha ha."
No, he wouldn't. He cheerfully admits to publicly donning what he calls "necessary poses". He has been talking about how adept he is at frittering away time; about how important this ability is and how "I don't seem to achieve very much". This is the poetic licence of his indolence and is patently not true. It seems odd that he wants people to believe it but he says "Oh, I wouldn't like to think of it all taking too much time and I would like people to think that it's really as easy as it looks. It takes a lifetime."
And a lifetime to cultivate an image of that blithe spirit who has wandered happy as a cloud through life. Mostly this is true. He is a happy person, he says, who had, in parts, a terribly unhappy childhood because his parents were wrong for each other and the marriage went mad and bad. His father sawed the marital bed in half; his mother poured boiling water over his father. He didn't see his mother for a decade (his three siblings refused to ever see her) but meeting her again cured him of being an unhappy person. He was able, he says, to see her as a middle-aged woman who was no longer the mother: "Oh yes, and that was a big help in returning me to the person [the happy person] I felt I naturally was." He saw her out of curiosity. "Absolutely it's curiosity. I would have died of curiosity. I had to know. I had to see."
He could observe her with interest. "That's right, exactly." Which makes him sound detached, and he is - or can be. The writer goes into his room and sits at his desk and "I'm as detached as I would be if I was working as a doctor in a surgery. I go into a compartment. It's a different life."
It is one he doesn't like to show and tell about. It embarrasses him to hear other writers talk about how hard writing is. "I would hate to give people the impression that there is all this misery attached to it."
He loves it and gains such pleasure from it while at the same time acknowledging, in a poem, at least, that: "This is a very odd manner of passing the time."
There he is at his act again. "Passing the time." Frittering it, wasting it, mucking about. "Everything we do in life, in public, is, you know, part act. If you're not demonstrating something to other people you're demonstrating something to yourself."
This doesn't mean he's too keen on the idea of examining just what it is he is demonstrating. "It is," he says, "very difficult to define your own image because you're living it". Well, yes, except his is cultivated so carefully. Why, for example, that big glass of wine? "Well, that's the cartoonist's version of me and it's one I like very much." He likes it because, "well, you know, it's another disguise. Oh, you know, it's a prop. It's like a walking stick. It's something you can lean on. It's there if people get sick of looking at you, they can always look at the wine, can't they?"
And, "I actually quite like to conceal myself. The poems are the aspects of myself, my thoughts, my feelings, and my experiences that I like to present to the public and I find that for myself, that I'm in the background. These are the things that I want the spotlight turned on rather than myself. Which is why I go to some lengths to conceal myself behind, for instance, a formal suit and tie when I do anything public."
I don't know Ireland but I have met him around literary traps (at book launches, mainly) over the years. He is always the same, always, as somebody else put it, bluff and noisy, jolly and boozy. He is always good company because he has good stories to tell. And he is excellent value for a journalist who writes the odd story about writers because he can be relied upon for a story about almost anybody. A slightly mischievous story, usually.
Most things written about him mention his gift for friendship but I am, I say, surprised he has any friends at all given the stories he tells about them. "Yes, that's right, but they're always affectionate."
Well, I know a mischievous story about him. About how, when he was president of the Society of Authors, another member phoned him with a query and Ireland said: "Look, don't ring me after 7 o'clock at night because I'm always pissed by then."
That is the cue for that big laugh. "Oh, that's a good one. I think that's great. Yes, I think that's brilliant. And that's an excuse. I'm not always pissed." Yes, but did he say it?
"I would quite like to have said it." I think he is quite likely to have said it, but he's telling the story, or one version of a story.
At the end, because he is ever the gent, he says, "it's wonderful to see you". I say, "and it's nice to see you. Whoever you are."
Boom, boom, he goes. "Yes, that's right! You've got me wondering now."