Airini Beautrais is a Whanganui-based poet who recently published her third collection of poetry, Dear Neil Roberts (Victoria University Press).
Neil was a punk anarchist who blew himself up outside the Wanganui Computer Centre in 1982. I’ve blogged about Neil previously and there’s more about him on Te Ara and the Te Ara blog.
One of Airini’s poems from the collection, ‘Introduction’ is this week’s Tuesday Poem. It’s a great collection, as much Airini’s own story as Neil’s. I interviewed her about the book.
As you say in ‘Dear Neil Roberts’, you were born after Neil died. How did you hear about him and what interested you in writing about him?
I first heard about Neil Roberts as a teenager, via a friend of mine who had joined an anarchist group in Auckland. I was always fascinated and upset by the event, and I recall trying to re-imagine it as an accident. It seemed too awful to me that Neil had deliberately blown himself up. Later, I met people in the anarchist movement who had known Neil or who had been part of the original Punks’ Picnics in the 1980s and 1990s, on Neil Roberts Day. The event was always there in my consciousness. I decided to write about it when doing some thinking about Whanganui history. It was 2011 and I realised the 30th anniversary was nigh, and thought it was a good time to use poetry to re-examine the event and how it has subsequently been portrayed in the media and the history books.
What sort of reaction have you had from people when they hear about the book? Have many people heard of him?
The reactions I have had have been largely understanding. I think people recognise that I haven’t set out to glorify acts of violence, but to look at who this young man was and why he was moved to do such a thing. New Zealand anarchists immediately know what you are talking about when you mention Neil. People I have spoken to who are old enough to remember the event in the news in 1982 have all recalled it happening, and some remember exactly where they were at the time. People younger than myself are less likely to have heard of it.
Have you had any contact with Neil’s family and if so, how did they feel about it?
I was unsuccessful in tracking down members of Neil’s family. I feel that I should have made more effort to do this. Neil instantly became a public figure, and I think there is an awareness that this event is going to be talked about in a public arena. But I would have liked to notify any surviving family members, in case the material presented difficulties for them. As a poet you assume no-one is going to come across your work, but this isn’t always the case. My understanding is that Neil’s family distanced themselves from the event at the time. I am not sure how they responded to the re-surfacing of the story in various forms, over the years.
You’ve clearly done a lot of background research. Was there much variation in how people saw him?
I made a decision early on to focus on secondary sources. This was for two main reasons: firstly, I was more interested in how our society remembers and portrays events, and so written accounts were of particular interest. I knew I would never know who Neil really was, and I felt it would be inappropriate to try to encapsulate him as a person. This would have involved a certain amount of fictionalising and I felt uncomfortable about that. Secondly, interviews can be intrusive and I didn’t want to cause stress to people. I had heard from another researcher that there were people who didn’t want to be contacted. To my mind this is perfectly understandable. I think people in the anarchist community are used to being viewed with suspicion, having informants pose as friends and fellow activists, and so on.
From the accounts I read, and from the limited discussions I had with people who knew Neil, there was actually very little variation. Instead there was a consensus that he was a friendly, intelligent, gentle young man who had everything going for him.
This book is your own story as well as being a story about Neil. What connections do you see between your life and his?
I chose to use a personal approach because it was a way in. It was difficult and confrontational material to explore. It also seemed appropriate for a work of poetry. There is a direct connection between Neil and myself in that Neil was the person who brought anarchism to light for a friend of mine. In turn this friend had a strong influence on the development of my politics. There were also other threads: I grew up in Whanganui, and moved back here around the time of beginning work on this book. There is a poem in the book “The thing is Neil, you are all of us.” “All of us” specifically refers to the anarchist community. Although we wouldn’t all commit such an act, I think we have all experienced the overwhelming sense of frustration and hopelessness, of being up against a powerful and violent institution, with limited resources for change.
How is this book different from your previous work?
For a long time I had the idea that overt politics were best avoided in my poetry. On beginning this book, I felt it was something I had to do, and that I had to let go of that cringe factor. I felt like I had nothing to lose. It is often said that politics is out of fashion in New Zealand poetry. In some ways that is true and in other ways, it isn’t. There are a lot of contemporary poets (from a variety of backgrounds) whose work is strongly political.
This book is also different in that it takes a unified theme, and aims at wholeness. It is designed to be read from start to finish as a single entity, rather than dipped into as a collection of poems. There is a kind of a narrative in there. In some ways it could also be described as a verse epistle or verse essay.
Tell me about the particular form you’ve followed for the poems in the book.
Dear Neil Roberts is written in quatrains. The form seemed to fit, and I began to write to the four-line stanza. It is not an arbitrary lineation of what would otherwise be prose. It is full of rhyme and off-rhyme, and there is a poem in there with a set rhyme scheme and accentual meter. I have become really interested in form and I want to play around more with received forms. This is a matter of inner compulsion rather than any specific reactionary stance in regard to poetry.
What’s next? Do you have other projects in train at the moment?
I am working on a creative writing PhD at the moment. This involves a creative project and I have chosen to write narrative poems about the Whanganui river region. It hasn’t been easy! Again, I am looking for an approach that doesn’t seek to encapsulate. I am one person, and a Pakeha, and it would be totally inappropriate to say “I am going to write the history of the river.” I am mostly focusing on the human relationship to the environment, and how the river catchment has been damaged since the 1840s.
from Ann Shelton’s doublethink