Interview with Piet Nieuwland

Piet Nieuwland is a New Zealand poet currently living in Maungakaramea, Northland. His poetry has appeared in a wide number of publications, both in New Zealand and internationally, and he is the author of 17 chapbooks and broadsheets. This interview is drawn from an exchange of questions and answers by email between 22 February and 6 March, 2017.

Aaron Robertson (AR): When did you know that poetry was something that you wanted to do?

Piet Nieuwland (PN): I was always very keen on reading and writing and recall a first poem written at primary school about architecture, being intrigued by the design plans for our new house.  At high school, J.K. Baxter featured and poets like A.R.D Fairburn, Allen Curnow, Sam Hunt and Hone Tuwhare were popular.  I read all of them, and got right into Vincent O’Sullivan’s Anthology of New Zealand Poetry as well as playing around with writing myself.

A picture of Piet Nieuwland.
Piet Nieuwland

Once I’d completed university and started working in Kaikohe, I had the freedom to read more widely, novels, history, and poetry.  A bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s poems and a film about Dylan Thomas with his intense live readings really got me going.  There was a small theatre in Kaikohe that held jazz and poetry evenings and where I first read my poems live – a real adrenaline buzz.

AR: Were both your parents from the Netherlands? Did you speak Dutch at home? Was that linguistic environment in any way an influence on your poetry?

PN: My father is from the Netherlands and my mother is from Taranaki.  Dad spoke Dutch, mostly on the phone to his friends.  We went to Dutch club cultural events and had visits from Grandmother Oma, and Uncle Albert who spoke Dutch and English.  Auntie Sjoukje gave me my first Maori/English dictionary.  I learnt French at school for a year, German for three years and have attended Spanish classes.  Dad studied Japanese at Waikato University and became a fluent speaker. So I experienced other languages from an early age. A year travelling in Asia and Europe as a young man reinforced my understanding there are many other ways of saying things and many other ways of seeing.

The mermaids at Lang’s Beach
Slip and dive into the high tide
Speaking Swedish in pink multicultual Maori
Singing black Californian, polka dot Dutch
Laughing French coffee accents and hints of Chinese Spice
Scarlet English blondes and Indian ebony golds
In a breeze as warm as Bream Bay waves
Through tangled pohutukawa shade
The summer altar of beach ritual and display
Inclines in to shelly sand recline
Scent of salt, soft sweet spot of sun on the back
Sunglass peering sunscreen spreading all over
The islands just over the horizon
Curves curve away just enough to
Sea foam hiss and turquazure blues

– Coves, Piet Nieuwland

AR:  Imagery of New Zealand’s natural world is a central element of your poetry, and you spent a good number of years working for the Department of Conservation. Was your time spent at DOC an influence on your poetry, or the other way round?

PN: My work at the Department of Conservation involved gathering large amounts of usually scientific information on land the Department administered.  To this were added contributions from iwi and submissions from a wide range of community organisations.  I then distilled and synthesised all this into management strategies, plans and policies.  So the language that occupied my days was of the natural world and human relationships with it.  The processes of writing strategies and poetry are not that dissimilar.

AR: I would characterize much of your poetry as being sonically dense. You certainly seem to take pleasure purely in the sound of particular combinations of words. Do these sonic elements tend to dictate the direction a poem takes, or does something else generally serve as a starting point?

PN: The starting point, or intention of my poetry is frequently the sense of a place, or a relationship to a place with a person, often someone I’m very close to.  The poem develops in steps, piece by piece, and the sound arrives instinctually I think.  I listened to a lot of classical piano music from an early age as my parents played duets together. The music occupies me. Having said that, the sound of the poem as you read it on the page is often quite different to the sound as heard in live performance.

The harbour Whangapae // waiting for the inside of paua // the fertile
organ, shallow feeding grounds of tamure porae moki and flounder,
sifting and stalking through the epidermal fringe of mangrove, the
border of luxuriant detritus grey popping and bubbling with the crawl
and waddle of crustaceans and molluscs, all warm, the trophic mattress
stretches and breathes, the heat opening mitotic pathways, continuums
of spirals and networks vibrating.

– from Down the Glide, Piet Nieuwland

AR: Your live delivery of your poems has a hypnotic, incantatory quality. How important do you think it is for poetry to move off the page and be delivered orally? Do you have any conscious models for poetic performance?

PN: Yes I love to read poetry live.  It adds dimensions that cannot be conveyed on the page no matter how cleverly it is arranged or laid out.  The rhythm, emphasis and accent adopted in live performance all contribute to the overall sensation and energy of the poem.  I write for poems to be read aloud.  I don’t improvise, as some performance poets do, preferring to keep pretty much to the script, with a group of related poems, followed or preceded by something quite different.

AR: Can you tell me the story behind your immortalization in the covered walkway between Whangarei’s Forum North carpark and Bank St? How did you get chosen to face off against Hone Tuwhare?

PN: A friend of mine at work gave me a newspaper article requesting submissions of poetry for a mural.  I sent some in and my ‘Life in the Chromium Archipelago’ was chosen, along with the poem ‘Rain’ by Hone Tuwhare.  I don’t know what the process was any more than that.  It felt like an honour, an acknowledgment and recognition of several decades of writing and performing to be chosen.  The artist did say that he enjoyed the contrasting styles, the direct simplicity of Tuwhare compared with the complexity and enthusiastic life of Nieuwland!

Beyond the loggia
Flotillas of entangled eigenvectors
Cross the high cumulo-nimbus plateau
Over horizons of tecomanthe and roses
Clematis and scrambling hoya
Tapestries of folded chlorophylls
Distant trains call to the marketplace overflowing
Evening falls in your hair
The gleaming cumuli restless
The fiafia night sky is a black moon yellow star
Nourished with honey, apricots and almonds
Radiata raging in the hollow sou’wester
Where we belonged to death
Yet our blood was alive
With the laughter of the wind

– Beyond the Loggia, Piet Nieuwland

AR: For the last 3 years you’ve co-edited Fast Fibres with Martin Porter, an annual collection of poetry from Northland, or of poets with links to Northland. Are there some identifiable characteristics of poetry from Northland, or of the poets themselves?

PN: Northland poets do like to write about their environment, but they do also reflect their cultures and countries of origin.  There is a wide diversity of styles.  Poets who no longer live here seem happy to draw upon their connections and experiences of Northland and the images it generates for them.  This is also probably true for poets of any region including the university cities who seem to dominate the poetry publishing scene.  I hesitate to make any further generalisations about characteristics of Northland poetry or the poets other than to say Northland has a high proportion of very good poets.

AR: Who are some of the poets that you enjoy reading, and why?

PN: I enjoy poetry translated into English especially that originating in Spanish and Portugese.  Some favourites are Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Caesar Vallejo, Vincente Huidobro and Garcia Lorca.  Those are the well-known ones. Why?, well because there is a mythology that comes alive in these poets and the poetry, one that draws upon a wide net of human experience and expression.  The richness of the language and imagery is captivating and inspiring.  Ezra Pound I also enjoy very much, like his Cantos, and their echoing and reflection through multiple histories. I find the literatures of many different cultures fascinating, as each has a unique way of seeing and saying.  It makes me feel more closely connected to the diverse people of the planet, not just the more dominant groups and their values.